One of the biggest coups of Anthony’s Meltdown – already looking to be one of the most genuinely innovative and inspirational festivals of recent years – was enticing Elizabeth Fraser out of the semi-retirement in which she has spent (with a few notable exceptions) the post-Cocteau Twins years.
The Royal Festival Hall is hushed and expectant. The Apollo Vocalists’ choir provide a gentle, if inconsequential, prelude, before dipping house lights and tinkling atmospherics welcome Elizabeth and band onstage. Literally glowing in the fluorescent stage lighting, whose interaction with her bright white skirt and ruffed top does nothing to detract from the otherworldly aura so characteristic in her voice and words, our introduction to Fraser’s live set came with new song ‘Bushey’. Her vocals – still very much that voice – blend and merge with the accompanying synths before suddenly soaring free to higher octaves, very human yet still somehow markedly “other”, mesmeric yet as unassuming as her stage presence.
The biggest cheers (of recognition and anticipatory appreciation) are reserved, unsurprisingly, for the opening bars of the Cocteau Twins songs with which the set finds itself liberally laced. 1984’s ‘Donimo’ is an undeniable highlight, the shimmer of its cymbals and the groan of it guitars synchronising with the suitably amorphous and hypnotic backdrop. Blue Bell Knoll was represented by ‘Athol-Bros’, ‘Suckling the Mender’ which is slightly marred by a sound imbalance until that jaw-dropping high note is hit and held and the title track – infused with a poignant, flickering fragility.
Heaven or Las Vegas’ ‘Cherry-Coloured Funk’, ‘Pitch the Baby’ and ‘Frou Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires’ are all greeted with roars of approval strangely at odds with the music they were marking, the latter song in particular possessing a dreamlike quality, an intangibility that was as just-out-of-reach as it was magnificent. ‘Oomingmak’’s vocalisations fluttered, only endowed with any meaning by Fraser’s phrasing and delivery.
Of the new, or non-Cocteaus numbers, the best more than matched their antecedents. ‘Charade’ in particular is an outstanding moment (see also ‘Make Lovely’ with special guest Steve Hackett from Genesis on acoustic guitar accompaniment) that sees Fraser’s singing left for a while unadorned by backing music: “Left the day/And yesterday/Left the day/Left the day” repeating and refracting as the mood moves from a stark intensity to a soft intimacy. On ‘Enoesque’ the subtle but compelling vibrato in her voice reminds us all, once again, of just how unique and skilled Fraser is.
Shy and withdrawn, only speaking two or three times for the gig’s duration – most notably to welcome Hackett onto the stage – Fraser’s bewitching songs are more than enough for the rapt audience. Gracing us with two encores – the first of which (‘Pearly-Dewdrops Drops’) is only topped by the second, when a reworked version of her take on Buckley’s ‘Song for the Siren’ brings the hall simultaneously to its feet and to its knees. This was a night that, although at times seemingly hard-wrought and draining for Fraser, was no mere will-this-do run through, it was a euphoric and timeless reminder of the splendour that always resided, and still remains, in this endless gift of a voice.