Camelot Lounge, November 20
Were Achinoam Nini a geographical feature rather than a singer she might be the Remarkables, the mountain range near Queenstown in New Zealand that soars straight from freezing lake to jagged peaks. Nini, better and affectionately known as Noa (to the gratitude of the world’s music critics), is surely among the most uneven performers I have encountered. At her pinnacle, whether improvising (including the words) against a slow blues or singing her own lyrics set to some Bach excerpts, she was breathtakingly good: a singer of improbable range, invention and vivacity. Yet in her troughs she sounded like a refugee from musical theatre singing second-rate pop songs.
This dichotomy was immediately plain. On the opening Waltz to the Road she carried all the spearing conviction of Joan Baez, while the ensuing Nothing but a Song was as wet as a picnic blanket in the rain. This contradiction could even be contained within a single song, as on You-tu, when her captivating natural effervescence warred with a stilted theatricality. Yet she could then transition to Now, a charming, heartfelt song of motherhood, and the even stronger Uri.
Despite this baffling unevenness Noa is star not just in her homeland of Israel, but internationally, with nearly 20 albums behind her stretching back to 1993. One can only surmise she joins that deep pool of artists who become accomplished and even exceptional without fully understanding their own strengths and weaknesses.
A particular strength was her long-term collaborator, Gil Dor, an acoustic guitarist of boundless musicality and resourcefulness, and yet he was overly straightjacketed in the role of accompanist when clearly an improviser of substance. Further colouring about half the repertoire was Noa’s hand-drumming, which displayed undeniable flair without quite hitting the peaks of her own singing or Dor’s playing. Fleshing out their sound was Melbourne bassist Simon Starr, who opened the night with a well-meaning solo set even more populated with pedestrian songs than Noa’s, although it, too, was lifted by a guest spot from Dor.