It’s a packed house in what is undisputedly one of the UK’s best small venues: The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge. Despite being an endearingly rough-around-the-edges old working men’s club, this place has been hosting musical legends and breaking new artists since the ’60s.
Martha Wainwright is the latest international star to grace the stage, and unsurprisingly the venue is rammed. As she ambles on in a low-key outfit of plaid shirt and leggings, the crowd gives her a rousingly warm welcome – Wainwright played here around this time last year, and she nailed it. You get the impression that she always nails it – her voice is so unfalteringly clear and powerful, and her guitar playing so seemingly effortless, that it’s hard to imagine her playing a bum gig. She’s one of those lucky few that simply exudes innate natural talent.
It’s fair to say that being gifted runs in the family. Her father is the multi-talented singer-songwriter and actor Loudon Wainwright III, her brother is of course Rufus, her mother Kate McGarrigle, and aunty Anna McGarrigle, were the lauded folk duo. Oh, and Wainwright’s husband, Brad Albetta, is also a musician and produced her first two albums.
Tonight she begins the show with ‘I Am A Diamond’, a song written by her late mother, which sets the tone for the night – poignant and moving. She has the entire audience in her palm from the first few guitar strums and drawn out notes of her extraordinary voice.
The next few songs are taken from the capricious and irresistible 2012 album ‘Come Home To Mama’, and although the subjects tackled are sombre and difficult, Wainwright lifts the mood after each number with self-deprecating banter. Totally comfortable in her own skin, she switches between the roles of chanteuse and comedienne seamlessly.
Midway through, following a few cracks about her husband, Wainwright invites him on stage to accompany her on piano. The pair has an obvious chemistry and Wainwright is visibly lifted; suddenly she exclaims that she needs some wine. Mal Campbell, the man responsible for the club’s stellar line-up, obliges and swiftly delivers a bottle of wine to the stage. After a healthy gulp Wainwright launches into a batch of cover songs.
First comes a haunting cover of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Don’t Forget Me’, which she imbues with more touching desperation than the original. Albetta is a gifted pianist and a solid presence on stage, and although Wainwright is at ease in the spotlight, she looks glad of her husband’s company. Next, comically altering her casual clothes and saying “this is hardly an outfit for Piaf”, Wainwright treats us to a mesmerising Édith Piaf song. It’s a safe bet that most of the audience doesn’t understand the French lyrics, but her reward is pin-drop silence and huge applause.
Introducing the next song from a Canadian songwriter, there ensues an amusing moment where Albetta keeps trying to guess who it is, just as she’s about to start – “Neil Young… Paul Anka… Feist,” until Wainwright feigns irritation and blurts out that it’s Wade Hemsworth. And just like that she segues from dramatic French to backwater Canadian folk with ‘The Black Fly Song’, accompanied by comedy medieval prancing and head bobs.
“Here’s another great song by another great songwriter… Loudon Wainwright,” she says, easing into a ballsy rendition of ‘Pretty Good Day’, the closing track from her father’s 1999 album ‘Social Studies’. We’re getting a bit of everything, obscure oldies and some brand new songs – one that she began in Hebden Bridge the last time she was here – but no one expects what comes next.
Albetta ducks off stage and Wainwright is alone again. She explains that the recently finished song she’s about to play is, “…about our good friend, who just died a couple of months ago. He was just 40… he was diagnosed with cancer aged 32, right after he married a beautiful woman… and he spent the last eight years battling with it.”
Wainwright pours so much emotion into the performance, raw unembellished feeling, that you’d have to be emotionally bankrupt not to be moved. Having slayed the room she announces the last song of the night, a song written about her father, and to the crowd’s raucous applause she launches into ‘Bloody Mother F*cking Asshole’.
The room erupts and after a brief pause the obligatory encore tops off the night. First a sultry but smile-inducing cover of the classic ‘Stormy Weather’ and then she closes the night as she began it, with a song by her mother, “…the last one she ever wrote”. The sparse beauty of ‘Proserpina’ concludes the penultimate show of Wainwright’s European tour. With a glut of new songs played tonight though, she’s sure to be back again soon with a new record. If you ever hear she’s playing nearby, don’t hesitate.
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Words: Nick Rice