Elizabeth Fraser

Elizabeth Fraser :: Meltdown, Royal Festival Hall, London 7-8-12

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With her silver puffball skirt, white jacket, Mary Jane’s and short-cropped grey hair, Elizabeth Fraser looked like an art teacher who was about to announce exam results, as she walked meekly to the centre of the stage at the Royal Festival Hall. A tiny figure, she held onto her mic stand as if letting go would open a trapdoor. This nearly 50 year old Scottish mum of two had not performed on stage for 15 years (aside from a few cameos with Massive Attack, whose Teardrop remains her most famed vocal contribution and, I suspect, the reason she doesn’t have to worry about money) before this past weekend. First came a warm-up show in Bath, near her Bristol residence, on Saturday and, then, the first of two Meltdown shows on Monday. Last night, Tuesday, was her last performance, for who knows how long? In a recent Guardian interview, her first in years, she talked quietly, but with charm and self-awareness, of her crippling anxiety and depression. She wasn’t sure if she wanted anyone to listen to her music, and couldn’t bear to even make a decision about whether she should record or perform again. So, simply put, she didn’t do anything. She stayed at home and raised her daughters. Who on earth knows how Antony persuaded her to do this. She must have been consumed by terror at the very idea. She retreated from the business of music a long time ago – the death of Jeff Buckley, with whom she had had an intense relationship (and also produced one, unreleased, complete gem of a song), had seemingly caused a breakdown and made her run from London to Bristol, where she has lived ever since. I had wondered if that song, perhaps a duet with Antony, might make an appearance but realised that, for her, such a thing would be too painful to endure.

As she stood, very still, the crowd collectively inhaled. The backdrop, a sprawling, black, metallic silhouetted tree over a latticed screen, which covered much of the back of the stage, started to come to life, and projections started to run. The ambient noise from her side-stage tech guy that had wound its way around every quiet moment, and would continue to between songs throughout, stopped and her band started to play. A visual focal point was her keyboard player – a cross between Mike Garson and Ming the Merciless, and with the fashion sense of Klaus Nomi – who commanded a bank of vintage organs and synthesisers. The guitarist made Torn/Fripp sounds, excellently; the drummer, in his glass box, surrounded everything with consummately played fills. The bassist switched effortlessly from bass to rhythm guitar. However, the sound, one must say, was poor at times. A shuddering bass seeped out of the speakers now and then, overwhelming all. The two female backing singers were sometimes superfluous. The sound mix was, at times, annoyingly poor. Everything was designed to frame her voice, but since it’s not the loudest there is, the mix was an engineer’s struggle. But despite these flaws, the voice everyone longed to hear was to win. Imperceptible at first, this delicate, undulating sound started to come out of the speakers. Like a hummingbird, it buzzed up and down and around, barely noticeable. It’s not a strident voice, and it’s not going to make the chairs wobble and the glass crack, like Diamanda Galas did last week. But it soars and swoops and, quite honestly, is one of the most beautiful sounds that has ever passed through my ears.

The love washed over the stage in waves. As each song ended, applause and feting filled the room. Declarations of love and marriage were suggested. She smiled sweetly. Just less than half of the set was new material – it reminded me a little of the more recent Kate Bush albums (now there’s a Meltdown fantasy: Kate curates) – and the remainder was old Cocteau Twins songs, greeted like long lost friends. I don’t think a single person present thought they were going to hear these dream pop masterpieces ever performed again. In all seriousness, while she’s been away, her band’s music has had an immeasurable influence. A band like Beach House (or Animal Collective or Bat For Lashes or the xx, and so on) simply wouldn’t exist. The esteemed indie-folk-pop record label Bella Union wouldn’t either: started by former Cocteau’s Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, the label has given us the aforementioned Beach House, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, John Grant, The Low Anthem, Midlake and dozens more.

That her voice is unintelligible, in terms of lyrics, matters not. It’s all about the sound. At times I felt as if I was in a waking dream, with the perfect soundtrack. Her instrument is untouched by years of touring, of slogging around the world and its festivals, and this concert was enriched for it. It’s slightly different, of course, with age, but the mesmerised audience was rapt and thrilled. She must have no doubt now of how much she is loved. In truth, she looked deeply touched at the standing ovations, applause and bouquets offered, and taken, from delirious fans. As she encored with Song to the Siren, a strange and exquisite Tim Buckley song, which, Teardrop aside, she is best known for (recorded as part of This Mortal Coil ), I thought I might dissolve into the seat. Simply, it was the most beautiful rendition imaginable of one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Gratitude fills me – to Antony for the invite, and to Elizabeth Fraser for overcoming her fears and saying yes.