Aldous Harding @ The Princess Theatre
It is not often, that an artist’s music, performed live, is better than the studio recording. Warm Chris, the latest album from Aldous Harding, is indeed, an exceptional work of art. However tonight, standing in the crowd, in Meanjin’s The Princess Theatre, I am spellbound by the performance from this acclaimed Aotearoa singer/songwriter, and her band.
It’s Monday, a school night, but the show is sold out. This is Aldous Harding’s first live performance in Meanjin/Brisbane since March 2020. She’s here to launch Warm Chris, released earlier this year via 4AD/Remote Control. There’s a kind of legendary story that surrounds Aldous Harding and her live performances. She’s one of those artists who people often say, is someone to see at least once before you die. It’s difficult to explain why that is. Enigmatic is probably the best word to describe her.
Aldous has been boxed into the folk genre, yet to give her music any label, is doing it a disservice. Her songs are melodically catchy, yet experimental. Her lyrics are famously cryptic. Her voice, an acrobat, jumping its way across all extremes of the vocal range. At times, husky and deep, then the next minute, high and clear, akin to Kate Bush’s falsetto. It’s hard to believe that this voice is coming from the same person. But indeed, the evidence is there before me when tonight, Aldous takes the mic for the opening number, Tick Tock.
She stands without an instrument, statuesque in front of the crowd, shoulders back, like a ballet dancer. She’s aloof, but not cold. She’s intimidating, but at the same time endearing. She rarely speaks to us. We seldom get a smile, and when we do it’s a small, controlled one, almost like Galadriel, queen of the elves.
Her band, also like wise elves, stand behind her, unsmiling and nonchalant. They are made up of some excruciatingly talented musicians, including Welsh singer/songwriter H.Hawkline, who features on Warm Chris, and was also tonight’s opening act.
After the first few songs, Aldous sits down to play her acoustic guitar, and straddles the chair, almost in what we might call an exaggerated “man spread”. There’s a chuckle in the audience, and Aldous nods to us. Acknowledgement that there is a joke, and we have gotten it. Well done. But when she begins to strum the first chords of Treasure, a track off her 2019 album Designer, she’s deathly serious. It’s a highly emotive song, and by the end, some of us are in tears.
But then, we are wiping our eyes, and beaming again, when during Lawn, Aldous dances. It’s as if she’s spent hours perfecting the most awkward moves in the mirror, but does it with such earnestness, that the crowd doesn’t know whether to be amused or not. We are unsure whether this is for us, or for her? Maybe it’s both. She does seem to be enjoying herself. Especially when someone in the audience calls out ‘We love you”! Then, someone else echoes with “We love all of you, not just Aldous”. I see some of the band grin. Laughter ripples through the crowd, and then we fall silent, waiting for Aldous to respond. She says wryly, into the mic, “that’s good”. The crowd chuckles again, and she gives us a Galadriel smile.
Throughout the rest of the set, we are treated to some older hits like Fixture Picture, The Barrel, and Old Peel, then all too soon, we have arrived at the closing song of the evening, Leathery Whip, in which H.Hawkline performs the piercing soprano in the chorus.
The crowd roars with appreciation, and then of course, moments later is chanting for the encore. The musicians return to the stage to perform Designer, the title track off Aldous’s 2019 release. She seems more relaxed now, perhaps satisfied with how the gig went. The song picks up, and Aldous is dancing again, this time with a shaker, and a grin on her face, her ponytail swinging. When the song finishes, Aldous surprises us, by gliding to the piano. The crowd hushes, wondering what Aldous will play as she sits down. She takes her time, gives herself a moment to focus. Then, begins to play the eerie opening melody to She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain. The softness and the wide-open spaces of the song, are shown respect from the audience. You couldn’t hear a pin drop.
This particular track is the only one from the latest album which took a while to grow on me. But tonight, hearing it performed by the songwriter herself, and seeing the emotion on her face, as she sings, gives me a new appreciation of it, and of Aldous Harding. The song ends, and there’s a moment of silence, as the audience takes a second to react. We are bedazzled by her artistry. It’s true what people say, Aldous Harding is someone to see at least once before you die, and now I understand why.
- Alex Campbell.