Beth Jeans Houghton with Stealing Sheep
Trof Grosvenor Street (The Deaf Institute), Manchester
Saturday October 1, 2011
Well, Trof, it's been a while since we last spent an evening together and next time, let's not leave it so long. The first floor music hall at The Deaf Institute at first appears to have remained undiscovered by hordes and hordes of students, and at first, it seems deceptively quiet for 8pm on a Saturday evening during term-time in Manchester.
However, the venue slowly fills up to capacity during Stealing Sheep's opening set. They may be reduced from three to two tonight (drummer Lucy is unfortunately absent), but the focus, as always, is on the girls' sweet, sweet harmonies. Their impeccable sense of rhythm is all the more apparent as a duo. The reverb-heavy guitar on 'Noah's Days' is idyllic, and the heavier sound of newer tracks like 'Paper Moon' shows that the band's songwriting ability is constantly improving and evolving without losing the fresh charm that makes them so endearing.
Beth Jeans Houghton takes to the stage only to be greeted by an unexpected screech of feedback which makes her band flinch. "Hi," she says nonchalantly, waving to the crowd. If it was all a ploy to get the chattering classes to shut up, then it certainly wasn't necessary because the next hour certainly does that.
The vocal range that Houghton shows on opener 'Atlas' alone is truly remarkable, flitting from an earthy alto to an equally rich, soaring soprano. The ease with which she moves through key changes throughout her performance is really something else. Her band join in too, rumbling away with their own beautiful, bassy octave harmonies on recent single 'Dodecahedron'.
"Does anybody know what a dodecahedron is?" Houghton asks her audience. "Yes, it's a 12-sided shape!" she responds giddily, and there's a faint whiff of chaos - organised or otherwise - throughout the set. A man runs up to the stage with a trumpet (which I'm fairly sure was on stage during the soundcheck), the crowd are asked how they feel about a "collective burp" prior to 'Shampoo' and Houghton fends off one lone man's heckles of "Get down!" with a cheeky "To what?"
Her dry sense of humour is superb - she introduces one track, in deadpan tones, as a song "about loving someone so much that you don't want anyone else to have them, so you kill them". The audience chuckles politely. "It's important to articulate these things," she protests.
Then, there's the tunes - aside from the aforementioned 'Dodecahedron', the oscillating hook of 'Night Swimmer' clearly stands out, and the folky qualities of old favourite 'I Will Return, I Promise' mark it out as a surefire hit. 'Sweet Tooth Bird' is pretty hard to describe coherently - the closest word is probably 'rambunctious'. Not content with sticking to her own material, she also manages to make Madonna's 'Like a Prayer' her own, promising a tote bag to the best dancer. Houghton is an entertainer in the purest sense of the word - hilarious, sweet and, most crucially, truly talented. What a performance!
words and images: Kate Goodacre
Beth Jeans Houghton's debut album Your Truly, Cellophane Nose will be released by Mute in January 2012. She plays at The Duchess in York (tonight, October 2) and The Cluny in Newcastle (26). Stealing Sheep open for Emmy the Great at Portsmouth Wedgwood Rooms (tonight, October 2), the Duke of Yorks cinema, Brighton (3), Glee Club, Birmingham (4), Central Station, Wrexham (6), Stanley Theatre, Liverpool (7), the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (9) and Trof Grosvenor Street (The Deaf Institute) (10).