Beth Jeans Houghton tiptoes into the centre of Borders from behind a shelf of graphic novels, accompanied by her drummer. Wearing a black, almost-dinner dress that fans at her waist and a precarious pair of heels that could quite easily constitute a health and safety risk, her striking look is topped off by a yellow and blue striped hat with peak.

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Beth Jeans Houghton: Club Uncut at Manchester Borders 18/07/09

Beth Jeans Houghton tiptoes into the centre of Borders from behind a shelf of graphic novels, accompanied by her drummer. Wearing a black, almost-dinner dress that fans at her waist and a precarious pair of heels that could quite easily constitute a health and safety risk, her striking look is topped off by a yellow and blue striped hat with peak.



The audience for this Club Uncut show, of which a fair few are already clearly familiar with her and the rest are made up of curious shoppers, start to stir. It’s as though they were somehow expecting a bookish librarian type, but are now pleasantly perked by this 18-year-old’s bespoke vintage-shop glamour. She introduces herself before explaining that normally she plays with a band – The Hooves Of Destiny – but for numerous reasons, they couldn’t be here today. Then it’s a quick pause to check the glittering love heart sticker below her left eye is still in place, and she’s off.

Once she’s done with the lovely first song, the crowd begins to whisper. It’s all about her voice, you see. There’s genuine shock that a voice so fully-formed could come from a young girl like this. Houghton’s voice is strikingly beautiful, almost choral and not a million miles from Nico at her less austere.

Musically, although she’s routinely been referred to as a folkie, the often intricate arrangements and bursts of whistling – particularly on songs like “Harlequin” – along with her use of loops, keyboards and xylophones, make her more indefinable. Some reviewers have likened her to Vashti Bunyan, but she’s far from some acoustic new-folk queen. There’s a playful, experimental edge to Houghton, and songs like “Francis” and “Hot Toast Vol.1” prove she’s au fait with a great pop hook.

Many songs are very personal. She sings of relationships, past-and-present friends and, as on “Ding, Dang, Dong”, the endgame of an affair. She never directly reveals whether it’s from her own experience, but she does offer, somewhat cryptically, “This is the last song I’ll write about something bad happening. Because it actually did.” By the third or fourth song, the music and voice have begun to draw in curious folk from the Borders café. The audience is growing by the minute. She throws in a cover of “Jenny Again” by Tunng, playfully claiming, “I’m sure you’ll all know this one”. Nobody does, of course.

She’s refreshingly disarming and unpredictable, claiming that “Nightswimmer” is about “a boy who sweats too much in his sleep” and that “Hot Toast Vol.1” is a ditty for “wheat-intolerant people’’. An old suitcase doubles as a kick drum and she’s adamant that some of her friends are actually spies.

Near the end, Houghton says she hopes everyone “is buying literature, as it is the life and soul of any party”, before signing off with the enchanting “Nightswimmer”. Then she’s out into the throng, handing out homemade goodie bags full of sweets, party poppers and postcards. Bon Iver and Adem are already Beth fans and, with a new EP due, she’s clearly now ready for bigger things.

Review: MIKE RILEY