Bush Hall takes the unwary gig punter by surprise. From the outside the venue rises from the dusty chaos of Uxbridge Road like a down at heel Victorian pub. But once through the doors, an ornate Edwardian ballroom, complete with chandeliers and wedding cake plasterwork, is unexpectedly revealed. It's certainly not quite rock 'n' roll, but that's OK because neither is tonight's gig.
Dogs bark on the intro tape. A curiously disquieting sound, and a hint, if we needed it, that this isn't just another rock show. You might recognise at least 50% of the band those dogs introduce: Ruby Throat. KatieJane Garside of Queen Adreena is on vocals; Chris Whittingham is on guitar. Together they cook up some minimalist midnight blues, the chime and clang of the guitar a fine foil for KatieJane's surrealist diva wail. And here we have something that might surprise those who only know KatieJane as the splendidly shrieking harpie of Queen Adreena: she actually possesses a voice of impressive range and control, and although her other-worldly persona is still much to the fore she still looks like she's not quite sure which planet she's on this week Ruby Throat is all about a certain delicacy, a light but sure touch on songs which pack a deceptively powerful punch, even if they're entirely free of glam-punk powerchords.
There are little touches of theatre: KatieJane pours drinks from a dinky blue teapot - an odd touch of the Emilie Autumns there - and, as if to emphasise the escalating emotions of the music, she climbs upon her chair and sings to us from on high a move which is almost her trademark, as Queen Adreena fans will know. 'The Ventriloquist' is a warm desert breeze of a song, pleasant and yet perturbing, with hints of strange things far away; 'House Of Theives' prickles like your bad conscience as KatieJane's croon rises to impeccably constructed crescendos. The ghostly dogs return to bark the outro, and as the applause gusts forth it's impossible to escape the feeling that we've just been taken somewhere slightly, delightfully, odd.
Possibly to challenge just these preconceptions, as soon as Catherine herself arrives on stage, she strikes an incongruous foot-up-on-the-monitor pose with her guitar, as if channelling her inner rock chick. Then it's straight into a set of sultry yet whimsical ballads, her voice swooping and keening through a switchback of emotion without ever letting go of a certain all-pervasive discipline. In the background her band, which includes viola and cello, takes measured steps through the songs, as if each musician is firmly held on an invisible leash. E-bow wails amid the strings, covers lurk among the originals. 'Wild Is The Wind' sounds like approaching rainclouds, and even Kylie's 'Confide In Me' takes on a certain dark-eyed charm. In this setting, it's as if we're present at a recital of chamber music reinvented for the future.
I like what Catherine Anne Davies does, and yet I find myself curiously disengaged, appreciating the quality of the music in my head without quite becoming involved. For all that switchback of emotion, this performance strikes me as a bit more more head than heart. In a way, Catherine Anne Davies is very much a musician's musician: the kind of artist that appeals to those who value commanding technique over a flight by the seat of the pants. Her playing, both on the guitar and keyboard, is delicately precise, and her voice never less than entirely controlled - even to the point of the just-so vibrato which she adds to every sustained note. In fact, Catherine Anne Davies relies so heavily on vibrato that I begin to wonder, as yet another lengthy note wobbles past my ears, if she's standing on a loose board on stage. I find myself damning her with faint praise: I like this music, but I can't quite bring myself to love it.
would happen, I wonder, if Catherine decided throw her musical discipline
to the four winds, trample gleefully on her precise technique, and do
the very thing that her guitar-toting stance suggests? It's not like
I want her to turn into a one-woman Metallica, or anything, but perhaps
just a little bit of rock 'n' roll attitude wouldn't go amiss.