Tag Archives: Holly Penfield

October 2017 – upcoming English gigs – Holly Penfield chops and changes in London (18th October); Minute Taker’s multimedia love-and-ghosts story ‘To Love Somebody Melancholy’ in Glasgow, London & Brighton (15th, 21st, 22nd October); Cardiacs’ ‘Marenest’ fundraiser showing in Bristol with The Scaramanga Six (21st October); and something on Paul Diello

7 Oct

Holly Penfield presents:
‘Holly Penfield – Spooky Little Girl’
The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, 372 Kennington Lane, Vauxhall, London, SE11 5HY, England
Wednesday 18th October 2017, 8.00pm
– information here

Holly Penfield: 'Fragile Human Monster', 18th October 2017For a while, there, I was spun back. Twentysomething years ago, I was a regular at Holly Penfield‘s ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’ (having first caught her performance on a random Edinburgh night back in 1992). Ostensibly based around sleek ’80s synth’n’sequencer pop, her shows had a number of twists. More like ’70s songwriter confessionals, they stirred yearning jazz and blues strands back into a genre which had mostly eschewed them. Based around Holly, her Kurzweil keyboard and a saxophonist (usually her husband Ian Ritchie, who’s had a hand in everything from Scouse artniks Deaf School to the Roger Waters band and the ‘Lonely Planet’ theme), they also had a compelling and bizarre Californian theatrical edge which variously sat in your lap and purred, wailed over your head, broke down in front of you, or made you feel less alone – always in the same set.

If you can dig up Holly’s long-lost debut album ‘Full Grown Child‘ – a brash early ‘80s Chinnichap production – you’ll hear an Innuendo-strewn, pop-belting cross between Suzi Quatro, a bleach-blond Rizzo, ABBA and full-on coke-blizzard-era Stevie Nicks. ‘Fragile Human Monster’ was the fallout from all that: an onstage realisation of Holly’s independent followup ‘Parts Of My Privacy’, in which she and Ian went back to her bluesier and torchier San Francisco roots, merged it with Ian’s techno-pop skills and teased out a series of passionate, cracked paeans (plus jarring digressions into performance art) about fear, instability and how the lost rebuild their lives and make their way. Tremendously tuneful but at odds to the music biz, the ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’ was that rare thing: outsider music with genuine craft and skill. It was also pretty queer and culty, drawing a diverse squadron of waifs and strays of all stripes (including me) to Holly’s home venue on the Kilburn High Road. Eventually it wore Holly out: putting it to rest, but still hanging onto her stubborn kookiness, she applied her remarkable voice and stage presence to a new career as a jazz cabaret diva. She’s made, I think, just one revisitation to Monster territory since (which you can read about here).

Holly Penfield: 'Spooky Little Girl', 18th October 2017Late this summer, though, Holly announced that she was bringing the old show back for an evening in October, though she wasn’t clear about how she’d be doing it: perhaps reworked for the acoustic jazz band she’s used for the last couple of decades, or perhaps with her going it alone (with the Kurzweil and sequencers brought out of mothballs and will go it alone). At any rate, I thought I’d be going along – possibly in search of my own confused, similarly theatrical mid-twenties self, perhaps to see if I got along with him a little better.

However, everything was upended in early September following Holly’s jolting appearance in the auditions for ‘The X-Factor’. Ubercamp, leather-clad and singing Meredith Brooks’ Bitch, she went full-on nightclub and came on to Simon Cowell like a kinky Weimar nightmare with a riding crop. Inspired by the experience (and not a little miffed at the mocking edit that made it to TV) Holly’s now claiming that “the evil jazz cabaret performer in (me) has clawed its way to the surface”, and has morphed the October show into an upbeat Halloween “Spooky Little Girl” special (billed as “cabaret classics, spooktacular rocking favourites and self-penned songs as only our Diva can deliver them”).

I can’t help thinking that an opportunity’s been lost (or steamrollered) but I might show up anyway. She’s still promising to pepper all of the knowing cornballery with old FHM songs; several existing set standbys (such as Stay With Me, seen below in a torch-jazz arrangement from 2009) originated in the old show, and a new-ish piano/vocal song Confessions (posted up online a year ago) suggests a creative leaning back towards the old days of torch and bearing witness. Regardless of any of that, there’s still the voice; there’s still the onstage magnetism. Should be some sort of a blast.



 
* * * * * * * * *

Minute Taker: 'To Love Somebody Melancholy' (live show)Also during the midmonth, acclaimed LBTQ folktronicist Minute Taker (aka Ben McGarvey) takes his multimedia show ‘To Love Somebody Melancholy’ out on tour in England and Scotland. I missed the news about his summer tour (which spiralled out from his homebase of Manchester, taking in Oldham, Chorlton and the Didsbury Art Festival plus a trans-Pennine appearance at Hebden Bridge) but managed to catch the news about his autumn followups in Glasgow, Brighton and London (including an appearance at the seventeenth century “actor’s church”, St Pauls in Covent Garden). Here’s the story:

“Singer-songwriter Minute Taker and BFI award-winning animation artist Ana Stefaniak have created a haunting, modern fable told through projected film and an epic live band performance of Minute Taker’s upcoming album… Expect to be immersed in a dark and magical world of strange animated characters and piano songs brimming with ethereal harmonies, fizzing synthesisers and orchestral twists.

“In ancient Greek philosophy Aristotle first popularised the notion that artists, poets and writers were of a melancholic disposition. In the middle ages melancholics were thought to be possessed by demons if they could not be “cured” of their depressive tendencies. Set on a desolate seashore, ‘To Love Somebody Melancholy’ explores the notion of the archetypal artist as he journeys through the euphoric highs and the self-destructive lows of his creative cycles. A new romantic relationship brings the artist the contentment he craves but it soon becomes apparent that there’s something else lurking in the shadows; a ghostly, shapeshifting third entity whose form is entirely dependent upon the artist’s current mindset. Sometimes a saviour, a source of inspiration and hope, sometimes a savage, ruthlessly determined on driving his lover away.”


 
Ben comments “one of my biggest influences when creating ‘To Love Somebody Melancholy’ was Kate Bush’s masterpiece ‘The Ninth Wave’. Such a wonderfully magical, otherworldly and at times frightening journey into the unknown. I never tire of going on this adventure with her. Come join our own dark adventure, inspired by Kate’s.”

Dates:

  • Websters Theatre, 416 Great Western Road, Woodlands, Glasgow, G4 9HZ, Scotland, Sunday 15th October 2017, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • St Paul’s Church, 29 Bedford St, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9ED, London, England, Saturday 21st October 2017, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Latest Music Bar, 14-17 Manchester Street, Brighton, BN2 1TF, England, Sunday 22nd October 2017, 7.30pm (with Paul Diello) – information here

Additional support comes in Brighton comes from the award-winning “pop/folk/fabulous” singer-songwriter Paul Diello, who recently wowed the Brighton Fringe Festival with a sold out run of five-star-review shows and who promises “a special set of songs” for the occasion. Citing Madonna, Bowie, Kate Bush and Anohni as inspirations, Paul is an increasingly powerful artistic presence in the LGBT underground, operating in the febrile interface between cabaret, chart pop, queerness and visual staging (in particular, via video). Provocative and insidious, with an ear for the brazen tunes of ‘80s synthpop, Paul reminds me of a tougher Marc Almond – albeit with the sturdy physique of a dockside bouncer – while his songs are sharp confections of fists, flowers and standing your ground.


 
* * * * * * * *

Kate Bush seems to have become a recurring presence in this thread. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I’ve always drawn a vague connecting line between ‘The Ninth Wave’ and Cardiacs’ 1989 album ‘On Land And In The Sea’.

Despite their common south London roots and the bare three years between them, there doesn’t initially seem to be much linking Bush’s silky-petalled Fairlight-driven art pop with the shrill, switchbacking, horns-and-artpunk firepower of Cardiacs, let alone their urchin squawks versus her sensual coo (though I’d have loved to have heard them cover each other). Dipping beneath the surface, however, reveals plenty to unite the two work. There’s the common and commonly transmogrified debt to English prog (in the structural ambition, the little flourishes of grandeur, and the enthusiastic mining of everything from twinkling tunes to violent psychedelic riffs, looming synth orchestration to jigs and jittering dreamscapes). There’s the common immersive marine motif – even when the sea’s banished from the foreground, it’s always present to embrace, propel, threaten or dissolve the bobbing characters within the songs. And although ‘The Ninth Wave’ centres pretty clearly on the near-death experience and night journey of a single castaway, while ‘On Land…’ zig-zags crazily over suburbs, shorelines, skies and inlets while weaving through multiple blurred perspectives (from the individual to that of a kind of profoundly skewed post-war national consciousness) in both works a half-sleeping, half-waking British mythology gets forked up and worked over anew, with a relentless filmic curiosity.


 

‘On Land And In The Sea’ provided most of the songs played in Cardiacs’ 1990 concert film ‘Marenest’, which brings its own chaotic theatrics to a fundraiser showing in Bristol. Live support comes from brutally grand, macabre Yorkshire rockers The Scaramanga Six, bringing a punchy live set based in part on their new crowdfunded ‘Chaotica’ album.

If ‘On Land…’ really was intended as some kind of concept album, it hid the fact under a typically Cardiacs welter of invention and disinformation. In contrast, ‘Chaotica’ wears its conceptual heart on a stained sleeve – the Scaramangas have been pretty open about its roots in “an abstract story roughly hewn from a concept of a dystopian island society. A place where everything has fallen into ruin, yet people still seem to have the same preoccupation with the trivial crap they had before. The population trudge through a chaotic existence on top of each other with absolutely no hope of a better life. Society is reduced to its base behaviour yet people still crave superficial fixes. The human condition carries on regardless. There is no outcome, no lessons to be learned. Familiar?” ‘Chaotica’ might not quite be a Brexit ‘Quadrophenia’, but it’s clearly leaning that way.


 
As is generally the rule with Cardiacs-related events these days, all profits on the day (including bonus donations by bucket or booking-stage gifting) are going to fund the care of Cardiacs’ driving force Tim Smith as he continues to battle against the aftermath of heart attacks and stroke. Note that the venue is quite hard to find, hidden as it is away behind the rubbish bins in a nondescript Bristol car park. Some Cardiacs fans would claim that this is only appropriate.

‘Maresnest’: Tim Smith Benefit with The Scaramanga Six
Cube Microplex, Dove Street South (off top-left of King Square), Kingsdown, Bristol, BS2 8JD, England
Saturday 21st October 2017, 7.00pm
information
 

Upcoming gigs at the end of July and onwards – Thumpermonkey/The Earls Of Mars/Ham Legion in London; Holly Penfield’s Judy Garland show hits the Hippodrome; The Luck Of Eden Hall tour the UK

25 Jul

Next week sees the first gig (for some time) for one of the most interesting of current British rock bands; some high-gloss cabaret; and the start of a psychedelic pop roadshow travelling around the UK. Read on…

Thumpermonkey @ The Islington, 30th July 2015

Thumpermonkey + The Earls Of Mars + Ham Legion (Guided Missile Special People Club, The Islington, 1 Tolpuddle Street, N1 0XT, London, UK, Thursday 30th July, 8.00pm) – £7.00/£6.00

Thumpermonkey don’t get as much attention as they deserve. It’s possible that this is because they don’t seem to take things seriously, addressing almost everything with a skewed and multi-levelled sense of cryptic grand-baroque geek humour. Just to illustrate this – a current work-in-progress Thumpermonkey song is “something which we’re calling Giraffes, which includes some vague narrative about doing a conga during an asteroid-based extinction-level event.” One of their older albums is called ‘Chap With The Wings, Five Rounds Rapid’ – a wry kill-the-monsters line filched from ‘Doctor Who”s laconic and unflappable Brigadier. In the same spirit as that reference, I’d suggest that while they are serious about what they do, they’re not necessarily serious about the way they do it – like many of my favourite things.

If what I’ve written so far leads you to expect strained, fey, sub-Zappa wackiness, then think again. Both in the flesh and on record, Thumpermonkey are a brooding and atmospheric proposition – seriously musical, travelling from blitzingly heavy quasi-metal riffs to spidery post-rock, from threshing post-hardcore to theatrical mane-tossing prog at a moment’s notice while Michael Woodman’s grand edgy vocals and complex multi-levelled lyrics ride on top like an arcane mahout with an arched eyebrow. They’ve been called “a sustained victory for intuitive cross-pollination” by ‘Prog’ magazine and every gig they play confirms this particular accolade. Here they are playing 419 (a song which at first appears to be one of their more delicate offerings, revealing its intensities later).

The other two bands on the bill are less well known to me, but aren’t short of blurb:

The Earls Of Mars are probably the most original thing you’ll hear all year. At their heart, the band are a ’70s-influenced rock band bringing together jazz, prog, space rock, doom and blues and forming it into a barking mad noise that you’ll either get or you won’t. If you don’t get it then close the door on your way out of the spaceship, as those of us who want to stay are off on a fantastical journey to who-knows-where, with The Earls Of Mars steering the ship. Enjoy the trip, ladies and gentlemen, as it’s going to be a fun ride.

Ham Legion‘s noisy lo-fi pop is punctuated with proggy outbursts, psychedelic breakdowns and passages of cod-metal joy. Tangy and tart guitar, egg noddle bass lines and light crispy drums are smothered in gooey boy/girl harmonies. Eat in or take away. For fans of Cardiacs, Deerhoof, They Might Be Giants, Split Enz, Heavy Vegetable.

Judge for yourselves – here are the videos for the Earls’ ‘Astronomer Pig’ single from last year, followed by some footage of a Ham Legion gig in Brighton a couple of years ago. As for tickets, they’re available here.

 

* * * * *

The day after the Thumpermonkey gig, Holly Penfield plays one of her biggest gigs of the year…

Holly Penfield as Judy Garland

Holly Penfield sings Judy Garland, The Hippodrome Casino, Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square, London, WC2H 7JH, UK, Friday 31st July 2015, 8.00pm) – £15.00 and upwards

Following a triumphant debut last year, Holly returns to the London Hippodrome, singing the songs of the legendary Judy Garland in her own inimitable style. Holly will be joined by her musical director Sam Watts and his magnificent seven-piece band. An unmissable evening for Holly and Judy fans alike, set in the glorious Matcham Room, located inside the Hippodrome Casino – formerly known as The Talk Of The Town, this is the venue of legends and home to Judy’s final London concerts.

Longer-term readers will know that I got to know Holly years ago via her own original ‘Fragile Human Monster Show‘ and the ‘Parts Of My Privacy’ album (which I wrote about ages ago – that review’s due a revamp and remount, I think). Both of those, though original songwriter pop, had their own theatrical and psychodynamic aspects which pointed towards Holly’s current work in vivid cabaret (and, latterly, as half of swing revivalists The Cricklewood Cats). As for Holly’s interpretations, she can and does cover cute showbiz camp and heart-tugging pathos within the same performance – you can see a couple of examples below.

Up-to-date information on the Judy concert is here and here, while tickets are available here. A mischievous part of me fancies swapping the audience from Holly’s show with the one from the Thumpermonkey/Earls/Ham Legion gig, and vice versa. I suspect that they all might enjoy it more than they’d expect to…

* * * * *

The Luck Of Eden Hall, 2015

On the same night that Thumpermonkey and co. play, The Luck Of Eden Hall are over from Chicago to play the first of two London gigs, launching a Kickstarter-funded UK tour which will take them to a wide array of venues and mini-festivals around England, Scotland and Wales, accompanied by a shifting cast of local psych heroes, left-field blues artists and quirky alt.pop shoegazers.

As for the headliners, you can expect clear-voiced, well-made classic pop beset by sudden gusts of psychedelic blizzarding. The Luck Of Eden Hall remind me of the drawn-out trucker-and-motorist tussle in ‘Duel’ – they come across like a more sombre Neil Finn or Andy Sturmer being stalked, dogged and sideswiped by Hawkwind, Ride or ‘Saucerful’-era Pink Floyd. Here’s a little evidence:


 

Full tour dates below:

The Luck Of Eden Hall UK tour

 

Through the feed – The Cricklewood Cats (Ian Ritchie and Holly Penfield)

6 Jul

The Cricklewood Cats: 'Shake Your Skeleton'

The Cricklewood Cats: ‘Shake Your Skeleton’

News in on The Cricklewood Cats, a new band formed by a couple whom I’ve been following on and off since the early ’90s. Holly Penfield sings, Ian Ritchie plays everything else. (I like bands in which one member plays “everything else”. Associates, Elephant, no-man – the tradition’s a good one.)

For those of you who don’t know them, both Holly and Ian have long pedigrees. Starting out as a teenaged Glaswegian jazzer with rock leanings, Ian began his career in the mid-’70s playing saxophone for Deaf School, the theatrical Liverpudlian art-rockers who also gave us Madness/Elvis Costello producer Clive Langer. In the ’80s Ian took a left turn into programming, becoming an early exponent of that decade’s techno-pop via his own project Miro Miroe. From there, he moved on to sleek, glossy electronic productions for Pete Wylie (‘Sinful’), Laurie Anderson (‘Strange Angels’) and Roger Waters (‘Radio K.A.O.S’). Amongst other unlikely adventures, he helped to pioneer digital home recording, flung together the ‘Lonely Planet’ theme after a two-hour crash course in ambient downtempo, and played the sax on Wham’s ‘Club Tropicana’. By the early ’90s, he’d also met and married Holly as a result of working on her second album, ‘Parts Of My Privacy’.

A striking singer, Holly had been part of the flash and swill of the 1980s Los Angeles pop scene, into which she’d delivered ‘Full Grown Child‘ (a fairly average, commercially obscure album of New Wave pop-rock featuring, among others, future King Crimsoneer Pat Mastelotto). ‘Parts Of My Privacy’ was a much more psychologically involved work – a thematic dark-night-of-the-soul electronic ballad record, showcasing her passionate vocals, pulsating synths and Ian’s jazz-noir saxophone. It was based on Holly’s live ‘Fragile Human Monster‘ show – part rock torch-song revue, part performance art – which she performed in L.A and around the UK and Europe. Exploring her fractured psyche and pursuing human connection, while putting a contradictory twist on pop star roles, the show was a shamanic exploration of trauma and angst; persistently breaking the wall between performer and audience, and unafraid to fall on its face if it had to.

In some respects, Holly’s development at the time anticipated that of Tori Amos. Both travelled from brash hairsprayed Angeleno rock (‘Full Grown Child’, ‘Y Can’t Tori Read’) onto more eccentric, higher-achieving confessional efforts. Only one of them had hits and a grand piano; but then, only one of them regularly beat up an inflatable Edvard Munch ‘Scream’ doll onstage. The latter was one of the show’s regular features when I encountered Holly and Ian for the first time, one random night in Edinburgh in a year when they’d taken the Fragile Human Monster to the Fringe.

This in turn led to me becoming a regular at FHM gigs back in London at which Holly would deliver her naked-hearted synth ballads, display scars, converse with the audience and deliver climactic primal screams while Ian prowled the stage behind her, playing multiple saxophones and serving both as musical foil and wary backbone. Over the years, a diverse handful of support performers included Tim Bowness (with his occasional ambient folk band Samuel Smiles), Mark Bandola (ex-Lucy Show), psychedelic London songwriters Susan Chewter (Wise Wound) and Dean Carter, and Chapman Stick ace Jim Lampi. With varying degrees of buy-in, reluctance and affection, each were pulled into the culture of the show in one way or another. It was an intense cabaret of madness, compassion, stress relief and ongoing healing. Depending on how you felt on any given evening, it could be touching, ludicrous, therapeutic, alarming… you certainly had to leave embarrassment at the door. It was all too much for one show to contain for too long, and after several memorable years it finally burnt out.

For the last few decades, Ian’s continued his own explorations – early live techno and Big Chill electronica with Shen and Chance Element, ecstatic dance with Urubu, recreating the sax solos from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ with the Roger Waters band, and innumerable jazz projects. Holly, meanwhile, has made a bigger name for herself in jazz cabaret in London and elsewhere, shaking down familiar standards with her own particular mixture of sass and kook: beyond the wigs and the campery, however, there’s always been a remarkable singer and performer. Over the years, Ian’s been a frequent contributor to Holly’s jazz bands, but they’ve not formed anything together until now.

In some respects – and on the evidence of their first single – The Cricklewood Cats doesn’t fall too far from what Holly and Ian have been up to in recent years. Rather than a return to the synth-pop balladry of ‘Parts Of My Privacy’, it’s a kind of virtual rockabilly with a strong flavour of jump blues and jumping jive. Ian’s “everything else” consists of plenty of saxophones, plenty of programming, bass, backing vocals and the ubiquitous ukelele; Holly’s collaborator on the lyrics is Tanya Chantier, who’s previously contributed to her jazz songs. Shake Your Skeleton’ is a life-affirming rattle-along on lusty, mocking baritone sax, with Holly setting the lighter and more vulnerable aspects of her balladry and cabaret aside in favour of delivering one of her gutsiest alto-range vocals to date. See above for the video cut (by Ian) from footage in ‘The Skeleton Dance’, a Walt Disney short from 1929.

The song pulls off the neat trick of simultaneously sounding faithful, sounding like a revival, and celebrating the art of the virtual band. As a consequence, there’s not much room for originality. All of the life here is in the happy, immediate unity of performance and production; and Ian cheerfully cites Louis Prima, Brian Setzer and The Cure’s 1983 swing diversion ‘The Love Cats’ rather than making any claims for breaking new ground. Still, The Cricklewood Cats seems to have brought out some of that same sense of fun and expression which Ian and Holly brought to the lighter side of the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ shows (yes, there was some of that too). I’m hope that as they grow into the project it becomes more of a channel for some of that era’s breadth of perspective and for Holly’s songwriting voice. Certainly their sheer musicality is intact.

In the meantime, you can download ‘Shake Your Skeleton’ from here. Incidentally, as far as I know there’s no connection with this.

The Cricklewood Cats online:
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Holly Penfield online:
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LIVE: Holly Penfield’s ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’, Downstairs @ The Washington, Belsize Park, London, sometime in 1998 (“calling back the family”)

3 Oct

Usually, the stage is festooned with objects. Antique candlesticks, mutilated dolls, little aliens and masks and stuffed rats. Inflatable replicas of Munch’s ‘Scream’; drapes and toy guitars and candles and mirrors. A travelogue of places been, of people touched and gifts given and received. It’s like walking into a voodoo shrine when you go to one of Holly Penfield’s shows, with a Kurzweil keyboard synth as the altar and a most singular priestess creating sympathetic magic.

Tonight, though, it’s not like that – and, to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been for some time.

When I knew it in the early ’90s, the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ Show had set itself up as a Kilburn cult: blazing and guttering as a shredded star in the Black Lion’s lofty function room, an intense piece of performance art sitting oddly on the schedule among the jazz nights and the inevitable country and Irish bands. I used to be a regular, travelling an ungainly “v”-shape by Tube from Highgate to Kilburn via Charing Cross every few weeks to take in this precarious celebration of the outsider’s turmoil. I’d be hearing new audience members mutter “I’m absolutely fucking gobsmacked!” and “she’s a shaman, that’s what she is!” as Holly hauled her exhausted self offstage after the climax of every show, to meet the cluster of new converts. Or watching others sitting bolt-upright in their seats, uncertain as to whether they should move or breathe yet.

Kilburn has a long-standing reputation for nurturing street-fighters, poets and geniuses, but no-one was ever entirely prepared for the sheets of tumultuous emotion that blasted off that stage, winding the audience in out of their cloistered London selves. It was no crowd-pleasing assemblage of easy pieces. It was an exorcism, sung out of the psyche of an unstable California songwriter come to earth and berth as North London’s answer to Tori Amos, whose self-appointed mission was to celebrate the glorious awkwardness of being alive and being human.

She did it in style and with her whole heart, exploring our contradictory and troubled natures with her bag of striking songs and her full-on keyboards and singing. Part synth-pop diva, part 1970s rock siren, she came across like a full-throttle Stevie Nicks or Grace Slick invading and overwhelming a Laurie Anderson show-and-tell, and she brought a brace of personas with her. At times she was the enigmatic seductress, at others the knowing child or the wise fool, the little girl lost who sees with the clearest eye. Sometimes – especially in the wilder second half of the show – she was the liberating hysteric, encouraging the whole pub into primal screaming with her, or delving into the world of the compulsively needy in the sonic barrage of Cuddle Me.

Being a member of Holly’s audience meant being enticed into shedding those cloaks of cynicism and reserve we use to insulate ourselves, and opening your heart up to the rawest kind of sympathy and honesty. The show became a part of us, as much as we were a part of it, the church of the misfits she embraced. We dropped our guard, she sang: a voice for our odd angles and our visceral fears. OK, it wasn’t always successful. If you didn’t buy into her stylings and sounds, or suspected her for the years she’d clearly spent grinding away and trapped in the Los Angeles pop factory, you’d have been left cold from the start. Holly’s whimsical song-stories of peculiar goings-on down at the ranch burbled where they should enlighten. Her savage onslaughts on her inflatable Scream dolls did look like kids’ TV for psychos; and some songs fell across the line dividing the inspired from the self-indulgent. If you led with your sense of cool, or your cynicism, there was no chance.

But at full tilt, it was unmatchable. Banners unfurling, defining the nature of the misfit – and, years later, inspiring the name of this blog. The keyboard was caressed and hammered, abused and enchanted, responding with waves and roars of sound, chimes and ripples as those melodies cascaded out of it.
Inevitably, the show would climax in a crash of sound and fury as Holly’s rage and passion reached a colossal peak and she smashed at keyboard and walls with terrifying fervour. Some evenings she’d pull herself up from the floor to let us off the hook with a song of redemption. Some evenings she’d given out so much that she couldn’t…

And eventually, it died a death. The show’s welcoming inclusiveness coagulated, and shrank to one woman’s neurosis replayed again and again on stage as a stubborn loop. Locked into her ritual of combat and confrontation, Holly became unapproachable: stopped listening. People, reduced from being family to being just punters, felt that; they stopped listening themselves; drifted away. Eventually, one evening (watching Holly run through a show that had become no more than a process, a jukebox for the disturbed) I realised that everything that had drawn me to attend the Fragile Human Monster Show – to be a part of the show – had slid out of Holly’s hands as they contorted on her keyboard, and drained away.

Quietly, and unmissed, I left. I heard that it ground on for maybe half a year longer – until Holly’s compulsion to keep performing it had finally ebbed – and then faded out. Radio silence.

That was then. Now… a tentative return to action. Holly’s show is no longer a monkey on her back, no longer a vampiric therapy devouring its own subject. And – by word of mouth, by phone – she’s calling back the family. There’s a new, one-off venue, in a more genteel neighbourhood. And there’s a gentler, shorter ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’. Less of a pitched battle this time. Testing the waters, for sharks and for soothing.

So… no decoration tonight. No Screams either. Just the keyboard, and Holly: still wand-slim, wispily blonde, petite; still looking as if you could break her between a couple of fingers. And, tonight, apprehensive as she works her way back into performing the show. When she takes the stage, however, she’s anything but insubstantial. That voice, that playing, those songs… are still intact. Little miracles of warmth and tension, instantly memorable as her astoundingly expressive voice curves little bluesy, jazzy curves round heartbreaking corners.

Penfieldia is a place to hide and be inspired, inhabited by characters like the homeless poet living in a box in Over The Edge or the unravelling lovers in the hollow urban landscape of City Of Lights. There’s familiarity to them, yes. These songs could conceivably have sat in the charts – or in piano bars. But, just as it all seems to be getting too straight, Holly twists it and it’s off in a different direction, or barbed with something unexpected that sneaks in and turns your heart like a doorknob.

Parts Of My Privacy unwraps the fears of the distrusting recluse. In Stay With Me slow coils of piano reach into the depths of loneliness, still the sound of a woman slowly sliding into the dark. Sea Of Love offers us respite with a slow sated love ballad and Don’t Hide sends out a rousing percussion call to faith. And Voices – a slow, winding sleepy version in which Holly leans on every note to push it home into the air – has the audience gently thrumming, always on the edge of a breath.

The clincher was always going to be the climactic ‘Misfit’ finale, the explosion which always blew the cork out of the frustration raging in the original shows. It still has that drama, that rage and stubbornness… but now it seems content to rest on its own worth, not to burst into hysteria and hallucinations. She’s keeping us guessing. Or, maybe, questioning herself about what her misfit resistance should be doing now and how its battle cry should sound, now that it’s escaped from the torments of the hall of mirrors.

Tonight, though, was something more important than just songs. It was the night that this most involving of shows gave itself back to the people who’d buoyed it up and who’d lived it as much as Holly Penfield herself. A collection of fragile human monsters found themselves, once again, with the sweet shared ache along the same shared faultlines.

No matter how much she could’ve dressed the show up, it would have been immeasurably poorer without that.

Holly Penfield online:
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A new semi-regular gig in London

We need no swords

Static and debris. Skronk and wail. This is music?

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Just another WordPress.com weblog

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honest words on honest music

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an absurdist review blog

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Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Archived Music Press

Scans from the Melody Maker and N.M.E. circa 1987-1996

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A lovingly curated compendium of the world's weirdest music

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Life Outside the Womb

a closer listen

A home for instrumental and experimental music.

Bird is the Worm

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Lucid Culture

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FormerConformer

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musicmusingsandsuch

The title says it all, I guess!

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