Hailing from a large family of musicians, French-Canadian songstress Martha Wainwright is something of a stand-out talent in the world of folk rock.
Her main connection to the NI music scene is her duet ‘Set Fire to the Third Bar’ with Snow Patrol back in 2006. However, her return to Belfast to play a gig chosen by Open House fest as part of CQAF’s Out to Lunch marks her first gig in the city since playing the Grand Opera House in 2008, as well as the release of her latest album, Goodnight City. Playing to a sold out crowd at listed church building Redeemer Central on Donegall Street, fans congregate from early in the evening under the soft pink fairy lights and paper lanterns which adorn the nave.
Casually taking to the makeshift ‘stage’ facing a small sea of wooden chairs, Toronto’s Bernice begin their set with little introduction. Spidery vocals courtesy of frontwoman Robin Dann characterise the band, her almost spoken word style cascading over disjointed sound effects to create a very unique brand of electro. Their sound is bizarre and experimental, featuring echoic keyboards and sampled sound effects (what sounds like a life support machine at one point) à la FKA twigs-inspired R&B.
The band largely compensate for their lack of traditional instruments with laptops, loop pedals and even a hand-held bell to create their futuristic beats. This, coupled with Dann’s strikingly pure vocal tone and outstretched hand movements towards the back of the hall as she sings her seemingly nonsensical lyrics, builds a captivating tableau. “He’s the moon / And I live inside of the moon,” she cries, often holding a note for several moments. Poised with her hands in her pockets, Dann doesn’t shy away from anecdotes about her songs, citing inspiration from Ontarian winters, National Geographic documentaries and Caribbean islands for tracks such as ‘One Garden’, ‘Don’t Wanna Be European’ and ‘St. Lucia’. An arguably leftfield choice of support act for Martha Wainwright, Bernice are unashamedly weird but nonetheless refreshing, leaving the audience with a sense that they’ve never really experienced a band quite like them before (and with a plug for cassettes of their remixes on sale at the back, naturally).
The laid-back, intimate atmosphere of tonight’s gig is highlighted as Martha briefly appears before her headline slot, waving to the audience as she chats with her sound engineer. Only minutes later she reappears, backed by Bernice as her band, guitar in hand and glittery earrings catching the light. Armed with her instrument, her distinctive nasal falsetto beautifully exploits the acoustics of the venue. Her trademark rustic folk has a modern edge to it, as heard on her breakthrough release Martha Wainwright in 2005 and notably again on her latest LP. Between renditions of ‘Around the Bend’ and ‘Traveller’, the latter of which she dedicates to a friend who died too young, she explains how a lot has changed since she last played here. Despite this, she still sings with the same vigour and in her unmistakable brogue, often standing back from the mike to go up an octave; these powerful moments are contrasted with heartfelt interludes of stripped-back plucking.
As her backing band chug Peroni between numbers, she reveals the songwriting process on 2016’s Goodnight City, touching on personal relationships, as well as songs written by other people, including her fellow singer and brother Rufus. Wainwright really loses herself in the music as she sings – if you’ll pardon the cliché – and the impassioned, almost frantic climaxes of her choruses display her insane talent. For such a passionate performer, she can be endearingly shy, peppering her speech with “ums” and frequently running her fingers through her dishevelled hair as she looks down. She often closes her eyes as she sings, especially when she abandons her acoustic guitar and most of Bernice to sing unaccompanied to the piano. The Montréal native intersperses French verses into tracks such as ‘Look Into My Eyes’, and makes the most dramatic of performances seem blasé, nearly always beaming as she sings and creating a semi-religious ambience with her voice. With the tiniest hint of country style, ‘I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too’ is deliciously uplifting, and she even plays ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’, dedicated to Trump on the eve of his inauguration, at the request of an audience member (in a church!). Candidly answering questions from fans, her charming temperament shines as she interrupts her own song to ask for beer and even because she forgets lyrics.
An emotional ‘One of Us’, and a co-written ‘Francis’ about her son, are highlights as theatricality and genuine emotion interweave through the gentle cadences in Wainwright’s vocal delivery. She plays a lengthy set and after such a brilliant, charismatic show, will surely be forgiven for swearing in church.