Jesca Hoop – Gorilla, Manchester – 06/04/17

It was perhaps not surprising that Californian Jesca Hoop chose to end a six-week tour in Manchester, her home city for nine years. Apart from the fact she could go home afterwards for a cup of tea rather than back to a dreary hotel or tour bus, as she said herself it was when she played to just three people at Night and Day on Oldham Street all those years ago that she was talked into settling here.

There’s a mutual respect that has grown between her and the city over time, even if “it just f***ing rains” here, as she complained loudly. Indeed, it was rather touching that the final song, ‘Storms Make Grey the Sea’, delivered a cappella, closes with the line “you belong to me,” which seemed to hang in the air after she’d left the stage. On the night, the largely mature-in-years audience did.

The current tour (it picks up again in May, in Europe) supports Jesca’s sixth solo album, Memories are Now; one that has brought about broad critical acclaim for being ‘complete’ and ‘refined.’

Taking to the stage with two guitarist/keyboardists and a drummer and with her signature white Gibson guitar, which she has described as “the best sleeping partner (outside the human race) I could ask for” there was an early disappointment in that the second song, ‘Animal Kingdom Chaotic (from Memories are Now)’, which has been identified as ‘anti-computer’ (though I suspect it may be more anti-war and anti-drone) didn’t really work in a live setting.  It is similar in tone to Annie Clark’s (St Vincent) Digital Witness and Huey Newton and contains similar lines (“are we all ones and zeros?” / “entombed in a shrine of zeros and ones”) but lacks those songs’ precision and sharpness. Even the vocals seemed to be muttered rather than sung.

But that disappointment didn’t last long.  ‘Peacemaker’ (which apparently is about the unsung gang girls who wean their men off violence by denying them sex if I understood Jesca’s explanation), and Tulip, quickly brought the show back on track.

Then the charming ‘Pegasi’, which featured her clearest vocals so far and a super-high note that dogs can probably hear better than humans, got me in the right frame of mind for what I was sure was going to be the highlight of the show; and it was. ‘The Coming (from Memories are Now)’ rates as probably the best track she has laid down in my estimation. The premise of the song is Jesus unexpectedly handing in his notice.

In it, she loses her religion (and she has, having forsaken her Mormon faith as a teenager) and portrays that loss in a sad, almost Joan Osborne-like way, even if Osborne managed to keep hers, in ‘One of Us’). Performed solo, picking at the Gibson and occasionally spitting out her words with venom, with just a couple of sparse red lights for company, it was riveting, if spoiled a little by a sudden ending, which took the audience by surprise and which is something that Jesca does with many of her songs.

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The set was on a roll now and a powerful rendition of ‘Deeper Devastation’ also featured some fine vocal harmonising. Then, during ‘The Lost Sky’, Jesca did something I’ve only ever witnessed once before on a stage when she seemed to self-hypnotise for a second.  (I’d be interested in learning if anyone else noticed it and, if she ever reads this, whether that’s what actually happened.)

The new album’s title track had to be restarted for want of a louder tambourine but was another triumph, allowing for a further instance of it just petering out at the end. The closing number was what I suppose is Jesca’s most recognisable work, ‘Born To’, and which was also the only really danceable song of the evening though strangely the audience’s feet remained as steadfast as the Giant Sequoia trees of her native California.

Rapturous applause was guaranteed to bring her quickly back on stage for an encore and, resisting calls from the audience for the Toni Basil-like ‘Hospital’ which she rejected on the tongue-in-cheek basis that she “no longer promotes self-harm”, she performed two songs solo, ‘City Song’ and ‘Storms make Grey the Sea’.

If I can return to the Annie Clark analogy, what Jesca Hoop does remarkably well is to interact with audiences. She is a natural storyteller and not only to music, occasionally chastising her audience á la Clark but in a way that would never cause offence. She also has a unique voice, even if some of its richness was missing at times on the evening. The only comparison I can make there is actually with a male voice, that of Peter Gabriel, and some of her arrangements bear his mark, too. I’m thinking in particular of ‘The Kingdom’. Some commentators have compared her to Fiona Apple.  In the sense that she is a clever lyricist, yes, but she lacks Apple’s jazz roots.

I had only seen Jesca perform live once previously, at a packed out and sauna-like Deaf Institute three years ago. On that occasion, I wasn’t entirely sure but this show won me over – partly because of the quality of the performance, partly because it was just the right length and partly because with Memories are Now she has finally delivered a truly top class album that bears comparison with any of her peers.

Support on the night came from Manchester-based singer/songwriter Chloe Foy, who sings light, enchanting, almost lullaby-like songs to chill to, sometimes with a neo-classically influenced twist. Her debut EP will be released at Salford’s Eagle Inn on 13 May and you should certainly check her out if that’s what lights your candle. The EP is called Are We There Yet?

©D J Bentley, 2017

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