Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Driving westwards on Monday evening, I was listening to Quiet Signs, the third album by American folk singer Jessica Pratt. With the rising silhouette of the landscape ahead of me, defined by a line of burnished ochre left in the sky by the setting sun, I could have been forgiven for thinking I was approaching the Mohave Mountains and Pratt's home state of California beyond; but I wasn't: I was passing the Sussex Downs on my way to Brighton to see Pratt play her first gig there since 2015.
Pratt is keen to not be pigeonholed as a traditional folk singer in the mould of Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell and it is true that her claustrophobic songs and affected vocal style have more in common with modern gothic folk artists, such as Marissa Nadler and Aldous Harding; but there is something about the intensity and purity of her songs that harks back to another age. With only Matthew McDermott on a Korg to accompany her voice and acoustic chords, the audience was silently spellbound throughout a set of sparse sounds that selected tracks from all three of her albums. Standouts for me were As The World Turns, from her latest album, and Opening Night, a hypnotic piano movement with wordless vocals, named after the 1977 John Cassavetes film that inspired it.
Support at the Brighthelm Centre - a modern church that I had only previously been in for a trade union meeting but never a gig - could not have been more different. Provided by Saul Adamczewski of Fat White Family, The Moonlandingz and Insecure Men, it was the yang to Pratt's yin. Adamczewski said more between songs than the former's 'thank yous' and even berated us with a Casio dance tune "to liven you stiffs up". In a humorous set - "it's good to be with you in the house of Our Lord" - of acoustic songs augmented by fellow-Fat White Alex White's saxophone, Adamczewski referenced demons of the twentieth century ranging from Goebbels to Gazza via Charles Manson (I might have been a bit unfair on Paul Gascoigne, there). The song Sweet Agony was introduced as being about Paul Sykes, a legendary Wakefield hardman. This gave me a start: taken from the title of his 1988 autobiographical novel, I'll wager that I was the only other person, in a roomful of people come to hear Pratt's quiet meditations, to have read Sykes' Arthur Koestler Literary Award-winning tale of boxing, robbery and battles with the prison authorities. Truly, an evening of joyful contrasts.