Café Oto, June 8

Photo Pascal Vermeulen
Photo Pascal Vermeulen

I’m worried that I’m late but, as I arrive, the crowd is still queuing outside Dalston’s Café Oto, and the atmosphere of anticipation is tangible. It’s a bright, light, early summer night, as we finally enter the venue, the light immediately dropping down into darkness, like entering the inside of a wardrobe. The delay, I discover, has been caused by an over-running soundcheck. Colleen has been having technical problems with one of her all-important delay pedals.
I have never seen Colleen live before and the pedal incident makes me wonder if I’ll be witnessing a performance by a dull technophile or, even worse, a grumpy pedant. Oh, what a surprise I was in for… Surrounded by a semi-circle of seated fans, with others on the floor in every available space, this beautiful, fragile Frenchwoman takes centre stage. She sits, bird-like, on her stool and gathers her pedals, instruments and wires around her as if making a nest. Quietly she commands the atmosphere as we collectively hush and begin to listen intently.
It immediately becomes obvious that the pedals are her instruments and not supporting tools. Transposing songs from her new, largely acoustic Second Language album, The Weighing of the Heart, to a partly electronic ‘one woman band’ set-up, she ‘records’ and ‘loops’ her clear, oddly reassuring voice and panoply of orchestral instruments – viola da gamba, classical guitar, clarinet, percussion – which are then overlaid and montaged into a seductive and mesmerising performance experience. It’s hard to say if it is principally a visual or a sonic experience. The simple tube of red lights threaded around the performance area adds a sense of privacy and gently heightens the subtle sexuality of the performer. She is clearly confident and in control of her set, but the music is on a constant knife edge – she sets her pedals with balletic, stockinged foot movements so quickly and apparently randomly (although actually extremely adroitly), the whole thing relying on her ability to overlay sometimes tiny details with pinpoint accuracy. is is obviously not a factor in appreciating Colleen albums at home, but ‘in the flesh’ it adds an electrifying, energising quality.
Always carrying the reverently silent audience with her, this was a truly fantastic performance, really bringing the new album to life and proving, with one judicious cover, the phantasmagoric children’s song ‘Pearl’s Dream’, from the soundtrack of the movie Night of the Hunter, just how truly cinematic simple, unadorned music can be.
Having been absent from the stage for over four years, this was a genuinely welcome return from a quite unique musical performer. I would urge anyone, no matter what your taste in music, to go and ‘see’ a Colleen show at the earliest opportunity.
LOUISE CLARKE