Aldous Harding at Sage Gateshead

Aldous Harding 
Sage 1
Sage Gateshead
Saturday, 22nd April 2023

Aldous Harding takes to the stage dressed in something akin to a black karate outfit, flat black leather shoes, her hair pulled tightly into a ponytail, her face seemingly make-up free. I
It’s a minimalist look, and this, coupled to her understated entrance sets the tone for what is to follow.
Despite tonight’s unglamorous façade, Aldous watchers know full well that her persona is an instrument of remarkable agility, her voice too – soft and gentle at times but it can also have a blowtorch intensity to it too.
Add to this the jagged lyricism of a young, surrealist poet and the simmering energy she quietly creates on stage soon starts to glow. 
‘Lick my instep,
I miss the funk it leaves on me
she sings moments into the evening’s opener, Ennui, one of nine songs she performs from her most recent release Warm Chris. 

Throughout the evening, she plays with varied cadences and pronunciation that gives a playfulness to the songs – demonstrated in the construction of the evenings second song, Tick Tock. 
A dialogue takes place between two characters – one sounding like a rasping late-career Nico, the other character sings in a higher pitch with a sweeter tone – the opening line of which builds on the already eccentric feel of the performance; 
‘The dirty of it ripped the label,
I believe him, man holy.

Early in her career, when she presented as a bit more talkative, Aldous Harding had namechecked Neil Young and Nick Drake as ‘favourites’ and indeed there is a nod to Neil Young in the recent video for Fever when his name briefly appears on screen spelled out in scrabble tiles.
Tonight though it’s pointless trying to dig around looking for influences, better to focus on someone who is genuinely trying to configure something distinct and experimental in terms of live performance art.

Harding’s on-stage demeanour turns out to be almost as interesting as her music; thus far, there has been zero between song communication. In fact it’s almost half an hour before she speaks her first words.
Silently, she adjusts her microphone stand, moves her chair across the stage and takes delivery of her nylon stringed acoustic guitar, which she looks at as if she doesn’t know what it is. 
So, you want to know a bit about me – this is an acoustic guitar, they found it in a river.” 
Then she goes quiet again and strums the intro to Warm Chris. 
Prior to these statements, between songs there has been some long, silent pauses during which she moves around the stage frowning and slowly turning her head as if walking through a jungle, looking at unfamiliar creatures.

Staring at the Henry Moore is the most stripped back track of the night, there’s a gentle, summery flow to it then it’s into 2019’s instantly recognisable The Barrel which meets with enthusiastic audience approval. When not sitting down playing guitar she dances and plays a variety of percussive hand held instruments: a tambourine, a cabasa and later in the set for ‘Old Peel’ she takes hold of a cup and taps out a rhythm with a drumstick. 

She goes back to using two alternating voices during Imagining My Mind which includes some gorgeous trumpet from drummer Gwion Llewelyn. 
His playing is also a feature of the aforementioned Fever and seeing him drumming and playing trumpet at the same time is an impressive sight in itself.
Although Harding is very much the focal point of the evening, credit has to go to her excellent band who quietly get on with providing her with the canvas on which she can weave her abstract patterns. 

Despite her unconventional stage presence, interchangeable voices and dreamlike lyrics, the actual songs are often fun, at times poppy and musically accessible, which may go some way in explaining why such an alternative artist can move beyond the New Zealand singer/songwriter circuit to playing the likes of Hall #1 at Sage Gateshead.
She does however, manage to make her set an engaging, discomforting and weird experience all at once.
The wild eyed stares and big forced smiles cause a number of people close enough to see her facial expressions to laugh nervously, though how all of this played out to those sitting further afield is open to question (and comment).
There’s one more snippet of communication before her final two songs – Leathery Whip and [encore] Designer.
These songs are for you’ she tells us before departing the stage with a wave and a frown as if the sound of applause is something foreign to her.

Review by William Graham aka

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