Review: Beth Jeans Houghton, London

Call me a cynic but, even though I’d come to love Beth Jeans Houghton & the Hooves of Destiny’s new album Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, I was slightly dubious about seeing her performing it live, to a crowd of Shoreditch inhabitants in a bar in Hoxton Square. Alight from the train at any of East London’s many stations, and you will find yourself confronted with an army of asymmetric-haired, vintage-wearing, geek chic trendsters, all so desperately trying to be casually different that they end up looking identical. It’s quite disconcerting, and quite boring. It seemed likely that Beth Jeans Houghton’s music would be like siren call for them all, and that I would be spending the evening peering around their bowler hats and side quiffs.

Well, I was very wrong indeed. The show attracted a surprisingly diverse crowd: young, old, couples, men in suits straight from the office, all sorts. There were no defining factors, which was a relief and representative of the wide appeal that Houghton’s music holds.

Her entrance onto the stage was matter-of-fact and unglamorous, stepping in between leads and plugs, and squeezing past roadies to make sure that everything was in place. Everybody in the crowd was noisily chatting and ordering beers, so she was not greeted with applause, and seemed to want it that way. She’s fascinating physically: a tiny frame with hairspray-caked bright blond hair, skin of a similar tone and perpetually blood red lips. Clad in a gold embroidered purple playsuit, I expected her to be more showy or camp, but she was surprisingly self-aware and even jittery at times.

In her defense, she was jittery because things kept going wrong. The microphone lead was basically glued to the stand so it was at the wrong angle; she decided to fix this herself by kneeling on the floor, adjusting, unsticking and unplugging various electronic devices, all the while singing an a cappella section, without missing a note. Next, her guitar turned against her and decided to forego a few strings in the middle of a song, which she aptly dealt with by playing the few which still worked, with perfect timing. Once she had swapped the broken traitor for a shiny new one, its strap broke mid-song. She quickly pulled her knee up to rest her foot on the amp and played the rest of the song like an old country and western crooner, while her violinist stealthily and carefully fixed the strap behind her. She smiled and winked at the sound engineer, but never stopped playing. It was like watching a very near miss of a musical car crash; we all grimaced and cringed, but were all transfixed, and ultimately felt nothing but admiration for her cool-headedness and innate musicality, which allowed her to perform flawlessly while the stage around her crumbled.

The set list was inevitably made up of tracks from Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, but also included some old favourites, including Honeycomb and Shampoo. There was an audience-wide sense of watching something very special; the precision of the band on the album carried through to their live performance, and their harmonies in particular were faultless and imaginative. Houghton’s songwriting skills, married with her vocal extremes from pure, glorious soprano to petulant shouting to deeper, sultry tones, make for a beautiful and exciting combination.

I went home wishing I was in a band. They all look like they’re genuinely having fun. They talk to each other and to the audience; they radiate energy and relish their time on stage, which infects everybody watching them. It feels like sitting in on a living room band practice with friends. Relaxed, but undeniably brilliant.

Anna Byrne