Elizabeth Fraser, formerly of The Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil and Massive Attack, gave a concert to a packed Royal Festival Hall as part of the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival. Fraser, whose voice floats, shimmers and shifts with a haunting and ethereal translucence, is famously reclusive, and almost never performs live, so this concert was a rarity, and a long-awaited comeback for her fans.
In some ways, the chamber music of Debussy & Ravel, which I reviewed at lunchtime on the same day, bears some relation to Fraser and her oeuvre: strange harmonic shifts, musical flights of fancy and impressionistic sound washes. But while the classical musicians at Cadogan Hall played with ease, without fuss and preamble, Fraser’s concert seemed fraught with anxiety and delay.
I first encountered Elizabeth Fraser in the early 1980s, not in The Cocteau Twins, but in her later incarnation as vocalist in “dream pop” line up This Mortal Coil (which also featured Robin Guthrie of The Cocteau Twins) on their debut album ‘It’ll End in Tears’. Later, I heard ‘Treasure’, the Cocteau’s third album: I was struck by the mystery and intensity of the music, the unusual melting of voice with instrumental, and the mesmeric layers of sound. On some tracks her voice soars, beguiling, sensuous and yearning; on others, it is hushed,”sotto voce”, as if heard through many veils.
The evening opened with a simple renaissance Kyrie sung by a quartet of a capella voices. It was simple and beautiful, a pleasing introduction to the transparency of Fraser’s voice. Unfortunately, at thirty minutes, it lasted far too long. If this was the warm up act, it had the reverse effect: growing restless and bored, a good number of people left the hall to replenish their drinks. Attempts to stall the singers by applauding between movements (unpardonable behaviour in a classical concert!) failed to budge them. I kept hoping Fraser would drift onto stage, her voice mingling with the quartet, but it never happened.
There was another hiatus while the stage crew made various adjustments to the equipment. Used to the unfussy presentation of live classical music, I felt these checks should have been done prior to the concert. Eventually, nearly an hour after the designated start time, Fraser and her band (two female singers, a drummer, a keyboardist, who was dressed just like Brian Eno in his Roxy Music days, and two guitars) entered the hall, to much rapturous applause, whoops and whistles. She began with a new song, Bushey, and it was evident from the opening measures that her extraordinary voice was obscured by too-loud drums and guitars. Shouts to “turn it down” and “can’t hear you” resulted in some adjustments, but throughout the entire performance, we never really enjoyed the full range or beauty of Fraser’s singing.
She is an awkward performer too: she seems ill at ease at the front of the stage, and when she sings, she hardly moves beyond some half-hearted wafting about of her arms. When not singing, she remained motionless or occasionally swivelled round to acknowledge the other musicians. Nor did the rest of the line up seem particularly comfortable as an ensemble: the keyboardist, who spent much of the concert with his back to the audience, appeared to be on an agenda of his own, and the backing singers would not have been out of place in an anodyne girl group. Above the stage, a strange light show/projection played out over an abstract tree form, and between numbers (which were very short), we were treated to bizarre rumblings and faux whale music.
There were some enjoyable moments – the second encore ‘Song To The Siren’ was very arresting – but the performance never really caught alight. We left concluding that we preferred Fraser on disc, where one can enjoy that particularly 80s “indie” wall of sound, with her strange lyrics floating atop it.