Clarendon Guesthouse, March 30, 2013
Why can’t more singers just be themselves? Why must they create glitzy show-biz personas and seek to – God save us – “interpret” a song?
Mary Coughlan just sings them. She does it with such simplicity, humility and honesty that there is no veneer; just core. When she completely nails a song – drives six-inches of steel through its heart and soul – she can be as compelling as anyone, especially when working with players of the calibre of pianist Matt McMahon and bassist Brett Hirst.
The songs with the deepest nail-wounds were Love Will Tear Us Apart and I’d Rather Go Blind. On the former Coughlan caught that implicit, terrible juxtaposition between matter-of-factness and searing emotion. This was high art, and I’d Rather Go Blind, also about lost love, was just as gripping, just as moving.
Coughlan is an anomaly because (in this performance particularly) her repertoire is skewed towards jazz, despite not quite having a jazz singer’s instinct for slippery, syncopated phrasing. For sheer conviction, however, she has had few peers since Billie Holiday, the greatest of them all.
This was McMahon’s first Coughlan tour, and he is the best pianist I have heard her use. He knew just how little to feed her so that her voice was beautifully supported, yet stark, and he played Blue Surrender with such delicacy it was as though each note were delivered with tweezers
Hirst, the Irish singer’s long-term antipodean bassist of choice, has raised his game from being a superior player to being one who can lift a gig to another level. His grooves were vibrant, his solos apt and his enveloping sound went some way to compensating for McMahon’s having to play a keyboard in the absence of a piano.
There were flat patches, but other highlights included Coughlan’s sassy classic, I Want To Be Seduced, the sad, mystical Ancient Rain, and Long John Baldry’s prescient A Thrill’s A Thrill. This concert was another.