Friday, 20 July 2012

No hay banda: Jesca Hoop at Silencio

So I finally made it to Club Silencio, the much-hyped, David Lynch-branded, private members club in Paris's second arrondissement. The occasion was a concert by Tom Waits-approved Californian singer-songwriter, Jesca Hoop (about whom more later). Styled as equal parts cabaret artistique, boutique hotel, and bad dream, the venue proved, upon my initial wide-eyed exploration, curiously underwhelming; like a night club chill-out room that never ends. Maybe I had simply built up too high an expectation after six or so months of anticipation, but I found myself wondering whether I could actually imagine a scene from one of Lynch's films taking place here. Perhaps, I concluded; but not ineluctably.

It had its low-ceilinged stage flanked by thick red drapes: check. A plunging stairwell decorated with glossy photos of a black-suited man doing strange things underwater: check. Absurdly over-priced cocktails with convoluted descriptions and oblique names: check. A smoking room holding a forest of plastic trees adorned with fairy lights: check. A maze-like layout coupled with a sense of hidden rooms behind concealed doors: check. Cast iron Eiffel-esque quasi-industrial fittings jutting incongruously out of sleek wood-paneled surfaces, walls lined with mirrors arranged at jaunty angles, and black - yes, black - porcelain urinals in the gents' loo: check, check, check. All of which, if not exactly standard fare, felt nonetheless somehow par for the course in a venue supposedly designed by the creator of Twin Peaks, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

Shortly after ten thirty, the red drapes parted to reveal Jesca Hoop and her band, greeted by a seated audience in a polite horseshoe circling away from the stage. The band performed brilliantly. Hoop writes intelligent, thoughtful and articulate songs, full of interesting quirks and infectious hooks. Her voice is powerful and vivid, able to draw from a seemingly bewildering diversity of influences, be it the classic American songbook or the choral music of Bulgaria. Former Fingathing turntablist Dan Baxter (aka Peter Parker) looked every bit the gas station owner turned hip hop convert as he jerked to the rhythms he tapped out of a little drum machine / sampler console. Ex-Pipette, Rebecca Stephens complemented, thickened, and enriched Hoop's voice with her own harmonies and counter melodies in a voice at once bruised and bright.

All was going well, and I feel fairly sure everyone in the audience would've agreed with that assessment. But as things progressed I became less and less sure that everyone on stage would. Principally, Hoop herself was, towards the latter half of the show, beginning to look distinctly uncomfortable. Not so much while singing, but between songs, certain little signs started to tell me - a man who has performed more bad gigs than most - that this was, as far as the principle performer was concerned, a bad gig.

It was an accumulation of little things, each one insignificant on their own: an awkward joke, a sudden urge to stop and have a drink of water, the way she responded to a brief burst of laughter from an audience member, a slight fidgety look about her. Whatever. I was captivated in the way one gets captivated by car accidents while driving past. Except, of course, that musically nothing had gone wrong, and probably to most people there, watching and listening, nothing would have seemed amiss.

And then it happened. Scarcely more than thirty-two bars into her last song, 'Deeper Devastation' from the most recent album, The House That Jack Built, probably the most Julee-Cruise-singing-in-the-Roadhouse song of the night, she stopped. Seemingly for no reason. Apologised, fiddled with the tuning on her guitar a bit, then signaled the band to start up again. Around the same point in the song, same thing happened again. Stopped dead. This time there's a palpable tension. Hoop looks nervous. Starts name-dropping. "I was in the Jay-Z video! What was that song called? I think it was 'In Paris' - is that right?" She turns to her band - she's actually urging her own band members to drop an N-bomb onstage in a foreign country. For a moment, everyone looks distinctly uncomfortable. Finally they get going again, and this time the song reaches its end, but there's more shifty looks between band members as though trying to fathom quite what just happened.

Quite what did happen, I am not sure. This is a woman who has been performing for over ten years, has toured with Eels, Mark Knopfler, and Elbow, shared a stage with Peter Gabriel, released three albums and a string of EPs. The crowd were attentive, respectful, hanging on her every word and applauding rapturously her every song. Yet somehow I suspect Hoop wasn't aware of this. Like the love from the audience wasn't quite reaching the stage. Or it may have been simply that something to do with the architecture, the geometry of the room, in some weird H.P. Lovecraft way, was abnormal, unsettling, "redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours." 

The more I dwelt on this matter, the more I became convinced that, for all my earlier stated reservations, there remained something somehow not relaxing, not chilled out, about this place; something uncanny or perverse, that had somehow managed to creep insidiously onto the stage and subtly disturb and unhinge the act of this seasoned performer. No-one dropped dead, a giant did not appear on stage bathed in a sourceless pool of light, but perhaps a little hint of Lynchian discordance had nonetheless manifested itself here before us at Silencio.