It is, by most standards, quite an entrance. Joan Wasser arrives onstage at Club Uncut with a mug of tea in one hand, a bouquet of flowers in the other, and a pair of giant plastic sunglasses that appear to have some kind of beaklike noseguard attachment. They’re so preposterous, in fact, that Wasser can’t bring herself to sing in them. For the rest of the long, hot night of this Joan As Police Woman solo show (her bandmates are waiting for her in Florence), they’ll act as an occasional prop to add emphasis to her between-song chats. About Uncut, say, and what she always thinks of first when she hears the magazine’s name. . .
Cocks. That’s what the name means to her. There is some discussion with the audience about comparative instances of circumcision on either side of the Atlantic, before Wasser brings the conversation to a close with what seems to be a recurring catchphrase: “DON’T GET INVOLVED WITH ME!”
She’s funny, Joan Wasser – something that’s perhaps not immediately apparent from her excellent recent album, “To Survive”. That record – which I blogged about here – was in some aspects a document of how to keep on living after the deaths of loved ones (her boyfriend Jeff Buckley, and more recently, her mother). But live, Wasser manages to deliver emotionally resonant versions of the songs while not appearing conspicuously traumatised in the gaps between them.
Watching her play these solemn, intense songs like “You Changed Me” and “To Be Loved”, stood over the piano, then joking about how a new track is “Yet another song that reads a blaring warning sign: ‘DON’T GET INVOLVED WITH ME!’”, I start thinking, perversely, about Amy Winehouse. I didn’t watch much of the Glastonbury coverage over the weekend, due mainly to a grim session on Friday night that involved The Fratellis, Estelle not doing her good songs, and the comic genius of We Are Scientists.
I did, though, see Winehouse’s set on Saturday night, large parts of which I thought were excellent and indelibly moving, even though the impetus behind the emotional content was the not-entirely-sympathetic Blake Fielder-Civil. What made me think of this during the Joan As Police Woman show was how, like most performers, Wasser must have become in some ways hardened to the traumas that provoked her songs, thanks to performing them every night. This, really, is how people who revisit their angst as a job can cope, I suppose.
And this is one crucial way that Amy Winehouse clearly can’t cope. Critics often – misguidedly, I think – want performers to put themselves through some terrible pain every time they sing a song, which isn’t exactly practical; as Craig Finn puts it in “Slapped Actress”, “Some nights it’s entertainment and some other nights it’s just work.” But when someone does involuntarily put themselves through it, as Winehouse did (while often singing superbly), those same critics are prissily offended by the visceral nature of the spectacle: as the procession of idiots who contribute to a thread on this board prove (the collective thoughts on Jay-Z, if you’re feeling brave, are even more offensive).
Sorry, I digress. It bugs me. But anyway, Joan Wasser. I’m glad for her sake she can deal with these songs in a professional way that doesn’t lessen their power. I’m reminded often of Laura Nyro, which I expected. More invidiously, I can’t help thinking of Sin-É era Jeff Buckley when she plays songs like “Christobel”, “Hard White Wall”, “Eternal Flame” and “Holiday”; the way her voice becomes pinched, sobbing, staccato when it hits her upper register, sometimes. She’s at once manic and droll, she has a phenomenally sultry go at Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”, and although I’ve never seen her play with her full band, I find it hard to imagine that the experience could be as warm, engaging, intimate and compelling as this.
Fine show. Thanks for coming. Next up, the mighty White Denim on July 14: can’t wait for that one, either.