Review: Meg Baird – Café OTO, London

Café OTO is trendy and totally knows it. It doesn’t even bother having the lights on most of the time (too obvious), and everyone shuffles around with wonky haircuts and vintage coats, drinking coffee on tiny tables illuminated by tea lights and “atmospheric” stage lighting. (It’s really nice there, by the way. My slightly disparaging description of the place probably all boils down to the fact that I didn’t get a seat.)

Anyway, in this little venue in the belly of Dalston, the American singer-songwriter Meg Baird headlined last night. It was a long night.

The first support act was Sharron Kraus, a generally highly-regarded British folk singer, whose dark and eerie songs explore the traditional themes of family, love, loss, sacrifice and nature. I didn’t enjoy it – I simply didn’t enjoy the sounds that Kraus and her two band mates were producing. Her voice is tremulous, not in an attractive, vulnerable way, but in an unpredictable, uncomfortable way. I just didn’t trust the act on stage; there were forgotten words, wrong notes, and a self-consciousness which made for stilted viewing. There was some haunting, lilting guitar and tight harmonies, but the set list was unvaried, and the songs lengthy.

Next up was Fursaxa, a USA-based “freak folk” project, headed by Tara Burke. Imagine the lovechild of a Vashti Bunyan, Bjork, Yoko Ono orgy and throw in some Inuit throat-singing on the side for a bloody laugh, and you have something almost Fursaxa-shaped. What she does on stage is interesting to watch, but three tracks and almost an hour later, the audience had lost interest. Some were clearly established Fursaxa fans, and I can understand it to a certain extent as she sounds great on record, but most were fidgeting, chatting, or outside smoking by the end of her set. Perhaps it was just a bit much for a Monday night.

So everyone was pretty sleepy and acid folked out by the time Meg Baird came on stage. Her breathy vocal was a refreshing contrast to the electronic looping of the previous act, and her confident but vacant delivery made for easy, if unremarkable, viewing. The parallels with Sandy Denny are obvious, as are her deep family roots in traditional folk music and material, but it didn’t blow me away. None of it really felt special enough.

I left underwhelmed by what I’d seen and heard; there had been no laughter, no goose bumps, no moments of real transfixion. Something about the evening never took off for me. If that makes me a folk philistine, then so be it.

Anna Byrne