XRIJF Day 5 – Gwyneth Herbert
The last time I saw the British singer Gwyneth Herbert was six years ago, her first appearance at the XRIJF. Her critically acclaimed album, “All the Ghosts” had just come out. Like all artists who are apart of the “Made in the UK” series of the Jazz Fest, her performance was in Christ Church. In that dark and echoey room, I made a memory clear as day. I was with my family, and my mother was sitting next to me. Herbert then started with a track from “Ghosts,” “So Worn Out,” which begins with her using whistle tones to create a siren call. My mother grabbed my hand and death gripped it almost immediately, so startled that the amazing sound. I was secretly hoping that she would start the same way. I got my wish.
Herbert — singer, pianist, “ukulele-ist”, and french horn player — who is terribly charming and funny, expressed that she “overwhelmed to be back.” A storyteller in her music and on the stage, Herbert’s conversations with the audience, explaining the songs she was going to play, and involving the audience, Herbert’s concert was fun, insightful, charming, and emotionally effectual. Her band, consisting of multi-instrumentalists and background singers Dave Price (drums, violin, glockenspiel) and Ned Cartwright (piano, alto saxophone).
She explained her first tune “So Worn Out,” explaining to us that it was inspired by the 272 night bus to Hackney at 2:30am, near where she lived. This bus stop frequently housed a man named Dave, who always had Star Wars or Star Trek figurines under his arm — and he would warn people not to mix them up –, and was fluent in Kilngon, a skill that she quipped would be helpful in the post-“Brexit” world. That siren call started it off again, and she weaved in sounds of R2-D2’s beeps, boops, and the “weee” sound made famous in the original trilogy, with a chorus of “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” a quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi addressing a group of Stormtroopers.
The next tune accessed Herbert’s whimsy, “Sweeter” from her new album “Sea Cabinet,” a song about how love was sweeter when shared with someone else. Price on the glockenspiel combined with Herbert’s bubblegum-bouncy words and melody made for a very innocent and sweet piece, accented with some simple background vocals from the guys.
After that, she recounted a tale from six years ago — the same year as her last XRIJF appearance, and what she called “the golden year”– about her creating the score for a silent 1928 art film, “The Patsy,” featuring Marion Davies. She described the movie as a story that “questions what it means to be a beautiful woman,” by depicting Davies’s character as flawed but charming. She wrote a song based on the movie, “Not My Kind of Girl,” and related the song to herself, describing a slew of self-induced injuries she incurred when she was young that her parents dubbed “Gwyn-juries,” and dedicated the song to the “klutzes and oddball” women. Opening with just vocals and piano, the song moves into jazzier territory towards the end, but during the bridge, Herbert breaks out the french horn with another iteration of the melody with superb sound.
Another song from “Ghosts” was next, a tribute to poet and lyricist Fran Landesman called “Put Your Mouth Where Your Money Is.” Landesman had actually heard of the song and traveled to see Herbert play it, and before Herbert came on, Landesman pulled her aside said, “this is my one outing of the year, so you better not @#$% it up!” Herbert recounted the tale for us, Landesman’s New York Jewish accent included. A sassy song that truly captured the spirit of Landesman, Herbert’s grit and sassy moves entertained thoroughly.
Then began the “compulsory audience participation,” Herbert, warning us that she would have Steve the sound guy throw us out if we didn’t participate. A song that she created for free release, “Perfect Fit,” featured a call and response chorus, with which the audience did very well, culminating in Herbert doing her lowest to sing “Gwyn and Rochester are the perfect fit.” The audience couldn’t quite get it, but thankfully Price was there to bass it out for us. Though before we sang, we voted on whether or not to rehearse the chorus or wing it, and we voted to wing it. Herbert approved but said, “let’s hope you didn’t make a terribly uninformed mistake,” referring again to Brexit.
Herbert then stepped to the piano, and told the story of “Promises,” the song that sets up the song cycle in “Sea Cabinet”: “Every day, a woman walks the beach alone, obsessively collecting every discarded and washed up object that she finds… And catalogues it like an archaeologist.” All the sounds, from the babbling piano, the soft rolling drums, and Cartwright’s melodica evoked the sea.
She then sang “Lorelei,” a song she has recorded many versions of of. This time, Cartwright was on the sax. An upbeat tune about a lonesome lover, Herbert was again explored the lives of “life’s losers.”
The highlight of the show came next, when Herbert described the song she wrote for the island of Alderney. A channel island, they were given 45 minutes to pack up before the Nazis came, and could only fill a small suitcase. When the Nazis arrived, they lived in those houses, and built giant concrete fortifications around four labor camps. When it was bombed and liberated, the citizens of Alderney returned, and in the words of French Jewish man interviewed on a TV special, to their “beautiful concrete scar.” The government of Alderney wrote Herbert an email after they heard it, and she went to the island to perform it on the anniversary of their homecoming with a choir, which included some of the survivors of the original evacuations.
After she sang the song, the audience gave a long and standing applause. Herbert would cry, and after taking a moment, she ended with “Annie’s Yellow Bag,” a fun song from “Ghosts.”
A true storyteller, it was easy to forget how talented of singer and musician she is, as her stories, lyrics, and sincerity are enthralling. Her soaring siren calls down to her contralto range with her unique take on the world captivated Rochester yet again.