Edinburgh International Festival‘s Contemporary Music programme rolls past its half-way point at its hangar-sized vaulted marquee at Edinburgh Park, on the western outskirts of the city, and as ever offers an eclectic range of artists in a Covid-compliant audience setting, each seat or set of seats sited two metres from its neighbour, with a gentle crosswind through the structure’s open sides. After more than eighteen gig-less months, acclimatising to the unfamiliar set-up is made easier by having drinks brought to your seat, having ordered them online – and the evenings have seen gently pleasant weather. Add to this another, unstated, unfamiliar sight – of bands playing live in front of an audience of people! – and you get a reassuring sensation of life returning to normal.
After a confident march through the first two tracks on her 2020 album Kitchen Sink, Tyneside singer-songwriter Nadine Shah freely admits it’s all a wee bit unfamiliar to her and her band too – although the album is over a year old, this is one of the first live outings the collection has enjoyed, and things are still a little tentative. For instance, a music stand is positioned next to her with print-outs of lyrics. These soon blow onto the floor, and later she has to ask around the band when it becomes apparent some pages are missing anyway. A skilled bletherer, Shah chirpily explains away such shortcomings and the audience’s confidence in the performance is undented – the five-piece band is nonetheless well-rehearsed and the assertive, loping grooves are assuredly delivered. These form the basis of most of the album’s songs – a muscular, elemental underlay of shifting dark bass supporting atmospheric guitar, synthesiser colouring and percussion punctuation, with occasional flugelhorn, and the rich voice of the singer, with its hints of operatic articulation, that veers slightly towards menace at times. If it’s shadowy, it’s artfully so, and never doomy or laboured.
This arrangement gives full vent to the album’s more ominous air than its predecessor, 2017’s Holiday Destination – chords are less obvious, melodies measured-out economically, and atmospheres are dark: this reflects the album’s subject matter, which, inspired by conversations with female friends, is a personal work referencing sexism, expectations and pressures on women, and misogyny. It tends towards an artful bleakness, reminiscent of P J Harvey, often settling on repeated phrases for emphasis – surprisingly catchy and often subtly beautiful, belying their lack of surface prettiness, and relative sparseness of harmonies. As singalongs go, it’s the more nihilistic type. The open textures of softer-edged tracks such as the raga-like closer Prayer Mat invite you into their interior, where nice detailed touches are discernible; at other times, such as opener Club Cougar, the openness gives way to a proper blast of distorted guitar and brass and a dense, exclamatory rush.
But for all the seriousness asserted in her songs, Shah, who remains instrument-less throughout, is a cheerful and friendly communicator, chatting amiably with the crowd, emphasising how she appreciates the opportunity finally to air these songs, enquiring at one point if anyone’s bought the album ‘or have you been streaming it?’ and making well-meaning jokes about her suspicion that her front-row fans actually prefer Anna Calvi, judging from their t-shirts (there are vocal similarities, but Shah avoids Calvi’s guitar-toting swagger).
She concludes with a generous encore of pre-Kitchen Sink tracks – noticeably somewhat lighter and more melodic – and you’re left hoping that the next album will be as good, and that it will come as soon as possible after this album has been toured.