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Serafina Steer and Mary Hampton, Café Oto, London, April 7th 2010

April 9, 2010

Mary Hampton

Harpist and singer Serafina Steer was at Café Oto to launch her new CD Change Is Good, Change Is Good, supported by left-field Brighton-based folk singer Mary Hampton and some bloke calling himself The Devil. I hadn’t seen Serafina for a couple of years, but had enjoyed her off-kilter little songs and fine harp-playing, so I was looking forward to an evening of slightly twisted acoustic song-making.

Mary Hampton came on, illuminated by the most in-your-face lightshow I’ve seen for a while, courtesy of Bubblevision – lots of op-art stripes, coloured bubbles, liquid light and swirly oils. She plugged in her Dobro and launched into two traditional folk numbers, Benjamin Bowmaneer (a surreal old tale about a tailor who takes on a flea) and saucy song The Bird In The Bush made famous by Anne Briggs. Mary plays well and sings in a very clear and attractive voice, not quite with the purity of Anne Briggs, but then no-one else does. She then played two of her own compositions, Because You’re Young and the hypnotic Island, accompanied at her request by the gentle jangling of the audience’s house keys. The effect of this, coupled with the crazy lighting, was quite hypnotic and for a moment I thought I’d been transported back to the psychedelic world of Joe Boyd’s UFO Club – minus Joe Boyd, thankfully.

She finished with a fine piano song, which I believe was called Hoax And Benisons, but what followed – the arrival of annoying guitar-playing ‘singer’ The Devil – threatened to derail the whole evening. As my gig companion the Amber Stalker drily commented, ‘If he’s The Devil, then Robert Johnson got the best of the deal…’ I suppose this comes under the heading of ‘performance art’, but mostly it was just annoying noise.

Serafina took the stage to a huge cheer from her mates and seemed quite nervous to be hosting her own CD launch. Throughout her set, she was assisted by friend Polly (and sometimes Alice) on backing vocals and Olivia Chaney on harmonium. She seemed more confident with her older songs, notably early single Peach Heart and Uncomfortable from her 2007 CD Cheap Demo Bad Science, but much of the new album’s songs were attractive too – particularly Port Isaac and Motion Pictures (no, not the Neil Young song).

Serafina Steer

Her harp-playing is accomplished and, at times, dazzling, but nerves seemed to be getting the better of her tonight. I imagine with all that meeting-and-greeting, she was somewhat distracted, but her disarming humour kept the audience smiling throughout. She also attempted a few songs on keyboard/synth, including a half-spoken half-sung Raymond Carver poem Drinking While Driving, which was good.

Serafina is phenomenally talented (first class music degree, collaborative study with Ravi Shankar…) but perhaps isn’t always on top of her game when performing in front of a crowd. That’s only a minor reservation, as I really like her eccentric sound, her skilful playing and her determined attitude. There were times tonight, though, when it seemed like we’d gatecrashed a raucuous house-party for her and her friends.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2010 12:25 am

    Just to explain (and break my pseudonymous cover), the original Songkick listing for this gig had the second act billed as The Devil. Hence the quip about Robert Johnson taking all his talent away at The Crossroads. The listing has since been corrected to The Rebel, which makes the joke a bit of a “huh?!” But it was funny at the time. I thought.

  2. brandnewguy permalink*
    April 10, 2010 9:10 am

    Ah, thanks for the correction. Yes, I thought Serafina might have said ‘Rebel’, but you’re right about the listings. “The Rebel Without a Hope”? Needs working on…

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