Review: Honor Heffernan, The Whistling Girl – Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast
Dorothy Parker was known for her cutting and acerbic wit, and lives on in today’s consciousness thanks to some of her more pointed quotes. She is maybe less well known for her poetry, of which there is plenty and it is this which forms the bedrock of The Whistling Girl.
With music written by Heffernan’s partner Trevor Knight, this show takes Parker’s poems and sets them within a cabaret setting akin to 1920’s Germany, albeit with some pop and alt-rock influences thrown in for good measure.
Heffernan is one of Ireland’s leading jazz vocalists as well as a respected actress, well known for her ability to interpret songs in a unique style; Knight may be more familiar as the keyboard player with the 1980’s Irish band Auto da Fé.
What a setting for the performance tonight – the metal belly of the Belfast Barge, decked out with twinkling fairy lights; possibly the smallest venue in this year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, but this show was absolutely massive and completely blew me away. How can I adequately describe this? There are hints of Tom Waits throughout, with distinctive leanings towards Dagmar Krause/Henry Cow, King Crimson, Ute Lemper, and even a sprinkling of Zappa.
This is more of a performance show than a straightforward concert, with Heffernan assuming a persona that is in part Dorothy Parker but which exudes strength, despair, heartache and longing. Heffernan cuts a beautifully striking figure, dressed in black, complete with black hat and veil, topped off with a slash of red lipstick and a shock of blonde hair. She dusts the set, re-does her lippy and sips from a glass of Jack Daniels throughout the show.
Early on, songs such as “Symptom Recital”and “August” showcase the range of Heffernan’s voice. When she takes a break, it is for Knight to take the lead on “Resumé”, with Parker’s poem about choosing to live because the common methods of suicide are horrible. This is transformed into a 1980’s synth track complete with Vocoder on Knight’s voice, serving to highlight the absurdity of the words.
“The Choice” is loud, brash and full of clanging keyboards; if we are talking Tom Waits here, it is the Tom Waits of Bone Machine. There is a surprising swing take of “Inventory/Dogma”, introduced by each of the band reciting one of Parker’s more famous aphorisms and I realise that it’s almost half an hour into the show and it feels like I haven’t had the chance to draw breath.
“The Red Dress” is a full-on rock number with a catchy chorus and Heffernan rapping some of the verses; Ed Deane on electric guitar plays slide licks somewhere up above the 15th fret. Jaunty glockenspiel leads into “Dilemma”, a musing on men’s reactions to female behaviour. There is a spoken word piece written by Parker about the siege of Madrid during the Spanish civil war. Presented with minimal keyboard accompaniment it is a touching and entirely relevant work, striking chords with current conflicts around the world.
“Observation“starts with a gentle piano arpeggio which addresses Parker’s views on how other people might view her behaviour. This is beautifully confessional and is topped off with the famous line:
“I shall stay the way I am, because I do not give a damn.”
“Observation” leads seamlessly into “Solace”, a short poem about loss, grief and the pointlessness of being told that there are plenty more fish in the sea.
Heffernan leaves the stage briefly while the band rattle through a great driving 90’s-style rock number complete with vocals by Knight that reminded me a little of Devo at their best. The evening ends with the title track from the album, “The Whistling Girl” and this opens an up-beat pop/rock song (with whistling naturally) that turns into a bigger rock and roll number featuring a chorus that could have been lifted from the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”.
As an encore, Heffernan treats us to “To My Dog”, which is a tender love letter to a favourite and much-loved pet.
The show lasted just over an hour; I loved every minute and I was half hoping at the end that the band were just taking a break and might return for another set.
Heffernan was simply amazing, combining singing and performance with a deep sincerity that is hard to achieve. The band were stunningly good, with Ed Deane (guitar), Garvan Gallagher (bass), Tom Jamieson (drums) and Trevor Knight (keys) all bringing something special to the show.
For me this was the highlight of this year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and I honestly believe that this show deserves a bigger venue and a bigger audience – it was my first time hearing Heffernan, but it certainly won’t be my last.