(Wretched Body EP launch at The Slaughtered Lamb, Clerkenwell, London, 17th July 2013. Review by Alison Bentley)
In the crowded black-painted pub basement on the hottest day of the year, someone was handing out ice lollies to stave off the heat. But the minute Beth Rowley began to sing, the overheated audience stopped fidgeting and concentrated totally on her voice.
Calm and poised, she opened with a song from Little Dreamer, her 2008 Top Ten album for Universal: Nobody’s Fault But Mine. The lavish album production had been peeled away, leaving lots of space for the voice: just guitar and electric bass on the tiny stage with its even tinier glitterball. Rowley grew up listening to gospel, blues and 60s music with her missionary parents. Tonight’s version was close in mood to Blind Willie McTell’s original, with Pedro Vito‘s fine bluesy guitar. When she sang, ‘I got a father and he can preach’, you knew it was true, and she had a little of the preacher in the cadences of her singing- the dramatic highs and whispers. Mahalia Jackson had been a great influence, but there was a complexity in Rowley’s tone, an affecting rawness and crackle. (She studied in Brighton with Carleen Anderson) The Everlys’ Love Hurts was her other cover, sung in harmony with guitarist Vito. There was understated intensity, like Dusty Springfield duetting with her brother Tom. ‘A bit of cheese for you there,’ grinned Rowley, self-deprecatingly.
She was promoting her new 4-track EP, her first release since Little Dreamer and her break with the major label. In the past she’s written songs with saxophonist Ben Castle. Recently she’s been working with new songwriters, and letting things take their time. Wretched Body was the EP’s title track: the reverb on guitar and voice created a 60s sound, with long, rich cello lines from Tasya. In Princess, Rowley’s voice had a wider vibrato, a little like Erykah Badu – Rowley grew up listening to R&B.
The simple two-chord structure and folky cello framed the voice perfectly, with its huge dynamic range. Steal Away, with its bass and guitar riffs, had an appropriately swampy New Orleans feel. Rowley sounded retro and modern at the same time, somewhere between Grace Slick and Joss Stone, but calmer and subtler. In Can’t Stop Tomorrow, she sang with some of Lana Del Rey’s low sensuousness. There was a country warmth in the voice too, like Bonnie Raitt, as if she meant every word. At the end of the song Rowley smiled shyly, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was the one who’d been singing.
She admires Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith and had written the Leonard Cohen-like Forest Fire with him. Rowley played melting blues lines on harmonica and sang with a dry melancholic tone worthy of Abbey Lincoln. Howl at the Moon (an ‘old song that fell though the gaps’) had a strong bass groove from Rupert Turner. Rowley veered between the bluesy phrasing of Etta James (she sang James’ Sunday Kind of Love in the film ‘An Education’) and the strong clarity of 60s Julie Driscoll.
The last two songs showed her at her very best. In Something like Harvest (perhaps referring to Neil Young’s song?) her harmonica sounded very like Young’s own, with a gentle country-blues flavour. There was a heart-stopping moment as she sang, ‘There’s no stopping you’, over a bitter-sweet minor 9 chord. The content of the lyrics often seemed less important than the way Rowley sang them. That Boy had just one line: ‘That boy says he loves you’, a repeated phrase rising through the arpeggios. The changing timbre of the voice told the story: gentle, breathy, strong and pure by turns, using the voice as an instrument, building the emotion. The devoted audience -all ages- roared their approval.
Beth Rowley sang as if she has an inner life. (‘… if I don’t feel it first, then I don’t bother,’ she told one interviewer.) Her own songs have deep roots in the gospel, blues, soul and country music she was brought up with. Her voice draws on all these styles but sounds completely natural, touching and beautiful.