It hasn’t been much over six months since Regina Spektor last came to Brighton, but her following seems to have multiplied considerably in this time, as reflected in the jump-up from the Concorde’s seedy confines to the considerably larger Corn Exchange. The success of her new album has helped, of course, as has the airplay given to its three singles, but Regina is still the sort of artist that you discover rather than have forced upon you, that your friends, rather than MTV, implore you to seek out.
A telling indication of the nature of her audience comes when Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars follows tracks by Radiohead and Massive Attack on the PA: it gets booed. Of course, that could be because it’s already 9.20, and posters around the entrance proclaim a 9pm show-time for the headliner, although the more likely reason would be that their particular brand of formulaic drear has little place here tonight.
I say little, because some of it has plainly seeped in with opener Only Son, who would be familiar to anyone who saw Regina on her 2006 tour, unless, as I’m expecting to do, they’ve forgotten him. NY singer/songwriter Jack Dishel delivers his material effectively enough, but ultimately there just isn’t enough to his sound tonight to lift him above the tide of similarly acoustic guitar-clutching hopefuls currently assailing these shores. It’s odd though, because on record he’s far more interesting, off-beat rhythms and sparse electronica augmenting his voice and guitar to quite striking effect, and whilst there is a touch of this tonight, there should be more. His set is pleasant enough, but ultimately somewhat soporific: after forty minutes or so I’m beginning to wish the bar sold coffee.
It’s 9.40 before Regina herself appears, the reason for her delay becoming apparent three songs in when a bout of coughing prompts her to restart a song. ‘Although you guys can’t tell, I’m like 700 degrees hot’, she informs us, and she’s right: you can’t tell. And now that we know we can’t help but look for cracks in her performance, but aside from the occasional cough and the frequent recourse to her bottle of water, there really are none to find.
She opens with just her voice and a beat tapped upon the microphone, as if in defiance of the instruments crowding the stage (a backing-band join her for about half of her performance). Understated, yet bold and inventive, it’s the perfect introduction to her set and to her style generally, which veers between sounds as though genre is just something there to be subverted. She’s a difficult act to define. ‘Anti-folk’ is the description most frequently applied, but it sells her short, failing to encompass the blur of influences and ideas, that meld into her sound. It might be better to think of it as the twisted progeny of a dalliance between Dylan, Bach, Bjork and Bowie, if your mind can tolerate such an image, and indeed the alliteration.
Whilst most of her set is delivered from behind a piano, it’s Regina’s voice that drives it, her stream-of-consciousness lyrical tales ignoring convention, her melodies shifting speed or giving way to mere noises when the mood takes her, the playfulness that underpins her music keeping us smiling throughout. Yet however erratic they may seem, her songs are always held together by an impeccable grasp of rhythm, demonstrated most strikingly on Poor Little Rich Boy, which sees Spektor simultaneously maintaining three different rhythms with her voice, piano and a drum-stick beaten on a chair. And even in her most restrained moments, such as with the beautiful Field Below, she creates a romance that not even the numbing right-angles of the Corn Exchange – a building far better suited to the exchange of corn than to the enjoyment of music – can dispel.
Maybe it was just the Lemsip, but a lot of musicians could learn from Spektor’s performance tonight. Humble yet daring, experimental without sinking into pretension, but above all, a lot of fun.