Review: Jesca Hoop – Strand Arts Centre, Belfast

The Strand Cinema is a beautiful old art deco affair nestled in the heart of East Belfast, and tonight it hosts not the latest blockbuster or cult classic, but Open House Festival who have brought the amazing Jesca Hoop to Belfast to play her new album ‘Memories Are Now’.

First on, in his own words ‘ to wake you up for Jesca’, is Lucas Oswald. The Texan native displays an endearing charm and his deadpan observations about his homeland only warms me to him more. Singing songs from his new album Whet, his voice is soft and conveys an emotion that belies his boyish appearance. ‘Starving‘ is about mental struggles and the lyrics are softened by his disarming vocals. ‘Feel It Again‘ was my favourite in his set, hitting me right in the heart, Oswalds emotive delivery building to a positive crescendo before sucker punching you in the gut again. His short set just left me wanting to hear more from him, a definite one to watch for fans of Pete Yorn, Ryan Adams and City and Colour.

jesca hoop - strand arts 2017

Jesca Hoop makes her appearance on the stage, resplendent in a red caged skirt, accompanied by her three piece band, including the aforementioned Lucas Oswald. Launching into the title track from her fifth album, Memories are now with it’s stark instrumental, overlaid by her beautiful voice and backed up vocally by her guitarist and bassist, the sound is glorious.

jesca hoop - strand arts 2017

She makes us promise not to behave because we are all so sedately seated in the theatre on this Thursday night and we duly oblige. Tonights set is focused on the Memories Are Now album but with a few oldies thrown into the mix. One of these is ‘Tulip‘, a murder ballad from 2009s Hunting My Dress album and it goes down well with the crowd.

jesca hoop - strand arts 2017

Hoop asks us how long we have been aware of ‘these songs Hoop’ with varying degrees of years- 5 years here, 2 years elsewhere in the crowd and she deems one audience member the winner when he shouts out since she first opened for Elbow. It’s far from a competition but it’s clear representation of the loyalty that Ms Hoops fans have once they are bewitched by her music. ‘When I Am Asleep‘ is next, off 2012s The House That Jack Built and while it is powerful it is not a favourite for me. ‘Havoc in Heaven‘ is an older song from 2007s Kismet‘ but it still sits well within tonights set, possessing the mystical Hoop magic that is spellbinding and hard to describe with words. ‘Songs Of Old’ slows the set down again and you could hear a pin drop in the theatre. It has the feel of a tribal lullaby if that’s at all possible and Hoops voice shines, hitting high notes flawlessly. ‘Pegasi‘ is my favourite from Memories Are Now and hearing it live does not disappoint. With its distinctive guitar melody and vivid imagery surrounding love and the end of it, it leaves me with glistening eyes such is its beauty.

jesca hoop - strand arts 2017

jesca hoop - strand arts 2017

On ‘Hunting My Dress‘ only Hoop and her bassplayer remain on stage, with the latter simply playing a bodran to accompany the guitar and the simplicity of this older song is stunning. ‘Peacemaker‘ and ‘Dig This Record‘ sit alongside ‘The Lost Sky‘ and shows the growth of Hoops songwriting between the last album and most recent. ‘The Lost Sky‘ is a tense affair that builds and builds until you love it, it is not instant by any means but it is insistent and unique. Ending the set on ‘Cut Connection‘ serves to confirm that Jesca Hoop cannot be pigeon holed- it is a loud and electric bluesy number which is a contrast to her more acoustic softer shimmery songs.

jesca hoop - strand arts 2017

Leaving the stage to thunderous applause she quickly returns to play a few more songs (and to get away from the freezing cold dressing room she has been telling us about during the set). ‘City Bird‘ is tonights encore and highlights the beauty of Hoops voice and songwriting, with its soaring twisting melody and melancholy lyrics. But the best is saved for last when she puts down the guitar carefully and treats us to an acapella rendition of ‘Storms Make Grey The Sea‘. Hoops voice is arresting, her stage presence captivating and she is timeless in that moment. It is a perfect way to end an intimate and mesmerising show.