Juliet Lawson - Abbey Theatre. St. Albans - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

Juliet Lawson - Abbey Theatre. St. Albans

by alan duttfield Rating:8 Release Date:2012-02-23

"So we meet again”.

It sounds like a meeting between James Bond and one of his notorious adversaries. Maybe I should be stroking a cat with a menacing glint in my eye. In fact it’s my meeting with a very nervous Juliet Lawson backstage before her showcase gig at St Albans Abbey Theatre. A smile, a hug, but she is in a different zone.

I was hoping for an pre-gig, “How are you feeling?” type interview, but it isn’t going to happen. “Oh, my God ( with a couple of expletives), I not sure if I can even remember the words to my songs,” she says, fluttering like a moth around a fluorescent light.

“Can I get a drink of tea?” she asks. “Yes it’s on your dressing table, getting cold,” says her manager, entering his own meltdown.

I’m in the wrong place, tensions and expectations are high. I leave; no one notices.

First time I saw Juliet Lawson was some six months ago when I reviewed her performance, ending up defining her as the Sugar Woman due to her low-profile and spasmodic gigs. Previous theatre, limited audience, limited expectations. Something clearly has changed.

I’ve seen her new social media postings, snippets from radio interviews, magazine Q&As, updates on her Facebook site regarding the new EP, Never Went Away. The Juliet Lawson website has clearly been re-vamped with updated photos, gig information. Some type of metamorphosis has taken place.

The theatre's auditorium is a hive of activity. Sounds checks have been completed, instruments in place, running order sheets stuck to various appendages, acting as prompts. To my left, a couple of photographers in debate about fixed angles and lighting apertures. To my right, more technical-looking equipment, this time a video chap who is no mood to chat.

A lighting engineer is trying to reduce the glare from lights facing the audience. He adjusts, steps back, adjusts, steps back. Tension is in the air. Each seat is supplied with a folder profiling her varied career to date with Never Went Away slipped inside.

This is a serious operation for a serious gig, it seems. If the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland would appear stating “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date”, the scene would be set to perfection. 

Seats are taken, the place begins to fill, chatter dies down, audience settles. We are about to begin. The band take their places, looking relaxed. A brief introduction, Juliet Lawson takes to the stage looking a vision of elegance and poise in a full-length grey sequined dress. Tension? What tension?

They begin with 'Throw It on the Water' a passionate song which is vocally challenging at the best of times. To open with such a test confirms a real air of confidence from the quartet.

As the set continues, she once again becomes a storyteller. Each song is explained, it’s history, why or when it was written. It’s a bonding experience. No wonder she often says intimate venues suit her style, as audience connection is important.

'Waste of a Woman' isn’t a complicated song in lyrical content or musical arrangement. It’s a song of sexual misunderstanding. She sets up the song to perfection. The anecdote has the audience laughing with gusto. It's a sing-along, clap-along ditty. I wish she would ask the audience to join in with a clapping on the chorus. They so want to, as tapping feet confirmed.

Musical arrangement is by the man on guitar to her left, Christian Marsac. 'Vive La Difference' pulls together the quality of the assembled trio. Marsac doesn’t go running off with guitar riffs. Instead he paces and balances each song, with a dexterity ranging from classical to flamenco improvisations.

All the previous songs to date were written by Juliet Lawson; this audience maybe hearing them for the first time. Here’s one known by millions: 'Don't know Why' written by Jesse Harris, made famous by Laura Jones. They don’t stray too far away from the original. Deft chord-changes coupled with simple expressive vocals make it an audience-pleasing individual rendition.

'Come Back MaryLou' and 'I Won’t Forget' are performed with Ms Lawson now on keyboards. One is about a missing Nigerian girl, kidnapped, probably never to be seen again. The other, a love long gone but still in a lovers heart.

You don’t need a lyric sheet. Each line can be heard with clarity. The lyrical content of these songs is a hard listen.

Sometimes an artist can be admired, and as such a song is selected due to the fan-based theme, not always the best of reasons. Lawson has chosen 'Why?' by Annie Lennox, a hit back in 1992 if memory serves me well. It also makes up one of the four EP tracks.

During audience banter she calls it, “A proper grown up song”. I’d call it a bloody hard song to deliver. There is a 'Why?' graveyard of failed attempts from reknown artists to make this work.

Let me put you out of your misery. This rendition is faultless. It isn’t a replication, the trio and singer have taken ownership and made it personal. Marsac comes in on harmonies, Lawson is in theatrical mode, all expressions and hand-gestures, a performer performing. I hope the recording guys caught the moment and you get a chance to view the execution of this song on You Tube or her website, etc.

If 'Waste of a Woman' had ‘em smiling, and 'Mary Lou' had ‘em crying, then 'Sally’s Got Salsa' has ‘em dancing. Again set up with a story: older woman takes up dancing to “befriend” younger men, nod, nod, wink, wink.

Like dogs let off a lead, this is where Simon Little on double-bass and Maria Julia Nunez (who came in as a late replacement. Really?) on percussion are given licence to get expressive. They don’t miss the opportunity. Little rocks and cajoles his double-bass as he would a dance partner. I’m sure I saw him throw in a little soft-shoe shimmy.

Nunez is timing personified, keeping the rhythm in check. She is a happy musician. Marsac the maestro is in Latin licks mode, occasional eye-contact with the percussion duo, making sure they are tight to the the beat. Lawson seems to be having her own salsa dance party going on at the front. Everything to like about this fun song.

From a punters point of view, the benefit of being so close to the artist and performance is the ability to capture gestures from all the band members. None more so than on “Don’t Leave Your Thoughts with Me' and 'Secret Lovers Tonigh'. Lawson can sing the songs, but she also performs them. A furrowing of the brow, an reaching-out of the arms, a pause, a tilt of the head. It’s subtle theatre.

Clearly many hours of rehearsal have gone into making this a showcase performance of quality and entertainment. 'Fallen Angel' is the last number of the set. There is some misunderstanding. Lawson tells the audience this is the last song, not once but three times. 'Fallen Angel' is delivered with just as much vocal strength as if it was the opening song. Not unexpectedly, the audience show their appreciation with a prolonged round of applause.

Instead of exiting the stage, Lawson again says that was the last song and see you all for a drink later in the bar, etc, etc. The audience don’t want a drink, they want more songs. The message is delivered with such conviction, the band believe it as well. We never got an encore.

The interview will have to wait until another day, but something significant is going on with Juliet Lawson and her music. This was an important showcase gig - easier songs and arrangements could have been chosen. If anything, it exemplifies the confidence and range of musical scope Lawson and Mersac have at their disposal.

“Never Went Away” four track EP released late November on the Ravishing Rhymes label.

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