Siobhan Wilson, Elle Mary & Secret Admirer – Eagle Inn, Salford – 12/07/17

Prior to attending this show I read a line from a review which said Siobhan Wilson can ‘silence a crowd with a whisper’. Dismissing it as the usual infatuated reviewer-speak, I was stunned to discover that she has the ability to do just that. Rarely have I heard a singing voice that is so quiet, effortless yet so authoritative.

Opening one of the many current Eagle Inn shows organised by Matthew Boycott-Garner (the brains behind the Carefully Planned Festival) was Secret Admirer, aka Nick Ainsworth  – who’s also part of longstanding Manchester band Former Bullies. I thought I’d stumbled into a stand-up comedy routine; he’s never at a loss for a witty story, a remark or retort. His set, including the odd cover, is made up of thoughtful songs delivered whimsically but unfortunately with the punch of Audley Harrison. ‘Secret Admirer’ suggests someone who lives timidly in the shadows and a touch more braggadocio – or even bullying – wouldn’t be amiss to spice up his live performances.

If there are any lessons to be learned, Elle Mary can provide them. The last time I saw her was October at Manchester’s Fallow Café, supporting Lail Arad without her ‘Bad Men.’ as here tonight. She delivers much the same short set; her guitar sound is much fuller than Nick Ainsworth’s, and she plays it sometimes with a peculiar circular strumming technique which reminded me of Anna Calvi.

She describes her songs as ‘weapons grade lullabies’ – and that’s pretty accurate. She sings awfully softly, as much about being dead as anything else, which perhaps explains the black guitar – and you can’t escape the feeling she could work her very good voice a little harder, which she only rarely does. Then suddenly she doesn’t so much vary the tempo as explode into one of the most dramatic song endings I’ve heard, telling someone – an ex- I presume –  to very dramatically to go fuck themselves.

She wraps the set up earlier than we’d like and in the same way as when I last saw her, with a song that evolves into a piece of guitar fuckery that’s quite impressive and possibly representative of her work with the bad guys (I haven’t seen them as a unit). I’d like to hear more of it. There is definitely untapped talent here. If I read correctly she’s neither signed, nor, more significantly perhaps, managed. There’s a line from Fiona Apple’s ‘Not about Love’  (Extraordinary Machine) on her Facebook page right now, a song that contains some of the most impressive lyrics I’ve ever heard. If that’s who she aspires to be, go for it.

Recent Green Man Festival Rising winner Siobhan Wilson, who’ll open the Welsh festival’s Mountain Stage this year, has one of the sweetest voices you’ll hear, anywhere. But you wouldn’t know it on the opening song which has the feel of an experimental piece on electric piano and guitar (courtesy of Matthew Rawlings, whom she’s known since her schooldays) and with very little vocal except recorded choral ones. “That’s the weird bit over”, she advises with her beguiling Scottish Highland charm and humour.

Once she gets going, largely playing songs from her new album ‘There are no Saints’, which is released on 14th July, the search for superlatives does too. I never thought I’d write a review in which I claimed to have heard Eva Cassidy, but I swear I did.  Apart from her having pretty close to perfect pitch, her singing is effortless, as indeed is her rapport with the audience.

She’s classically trained, but most of her songs fall into the indie-folk category with occasional forays into pop. Her lyrics demand your attention too and you know that you need to sit down and get to grips with these songs in your own time. “Nobody knows what Dark Matter’s made of, or what goes on between your eyes”.

In fact there are times during the evening when she distinctly reminds me of Jenny Lewis, in her Rabbit Fur Coat époque (her first solo album après Rilo Kiley) with the Watson Twins.

Why the French, you may ask? Well, something else she can do, and extremely convincingly, is to sing in French, offering us two songs entirely in that language and another partially so. Five years living there must help of course but such is her versatility that’s she’s able to evoke both Vanessa Paradis and Edith Piaf in this brief cultural exchange programme.

As I leave the Eagle I’m scratching my head as to why Siobhan Wilson isn’t a big star and – with no disrespect to a great little venue which I’ve often championed in the past – why she’s performing in a stark brick-dominated environment that is so at odds with her highly cultured style. Perhaps the fact she used to perform as Ella the Bird – which sounds like a circus high-wire act – has something to do with it.

With that presumably behind her, and if this album is as good as I think it will be, this lady is going places. And I don’t just mean Wales.

©D J Bentley, 2017

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