Back in April Rookes was featured in GIITTV’s regular ‘Tracks of the Week’ feature and I said at the time I couldn’t wait to see her playing live. She doesn’t make too many live shows and they tend to be in London so when a rare northern opportunity arose I seized the moment.
That opportunity was the launch event for a worthy charity, The Matthew Nicholls Foundation, named for a young suicide victim and which has chosen as its objective to help young people to develop their musical abilities. In an introductory speech it was revealed that in parts of Manchester there is, believe it or not in a city that prides itself on its musical history, little or no educational budget for musical instruments. The Foundation discovered there was a surfeit of them in a London borough and arranged a transfer. That’s the sort of charity sector news that should be making the headlines.
I was not aware previously that Rookes personally knew Matthew Nicholls; it seems she shared accommodation with him in South London, so there was always going to be a deeper personal element to her show.
Rookes is Birmingham-born and raised Jenny Bulcraig and she has an interesting history that a little gentle probing reveals. Having been in several bands she either is, or has been involved with drama and visual art and more mundanely worked as a dental assistant. What fascinated me, though, is that she has been a Church Minister.
I am sure that it was that latter experience that gave the powerful self-confidence and stage presence she has and which immediately won over the audience. Let’s face it you need to know how to hold one, rattling on from a pulpit for an hour every Sunday. There was no hesitancy whatsoever in her rapport with this audience, which was instantaneous. No ‘obviouslys’ or ‘basicallys’ jarring her chat between songs. She thinks fast on her feet, is articulate, and has the right word for every occasion.
And she needed that rapport on the night. The problem with being a one-woman band with a plethora of pedals and backing tracks together with rhythms magically conjured up on the spot through a few taps on the mic, claps and finger clicks and then looped, all controlled through the primary instrument, an iPad on a stand, is that you become a slave to technology. Things can go wrong. And they did.
On several occasions the sound was too low, some instruments couldn’t be heard, and on closing song ‘The Game and the River’, the title track from her recent EP, the iPad decided it would play what it wanted rather than what she did.
It is for those reasons I suggest she needs a ‘band’ – meaning someone with the capability to play several instruments at once, like Anna Calvi’s Mally Harpaz, leaving her to focus on her own performance rather than worrying about computer meltdown. But she’s having none of it and I defer to her own judgement on that matter.
Rookes is broadly classed as ‘indie-pop’ and her influences are wide-ranging, covering everyone from Michael Jackson to Elbow to Grimes. But she really doesn’t sound like anyone else and that’s her appeal. She excels at finding a memorable tune, and while much of her recent output has been electronic she played a couple of old songs (‘Sidelines’ and ‘Salvage’) and an untitled new one which suggest strongly that she has a soulful side too.
The penultimate song was ‘The Heel of my Hand’ in which she opted to feature the ukulele that figures in the video performance below, as the primary instrument. It didn’t quite come off owing to the ukulele’s low volume but it was a worthy try. However the powerful synth bridge was missing, along with some of the melody and that was a disappointment as it really makes the song in my opinion. Back to the ‘band’ argument again.
Her material is largely shaped by her personal life, which involved coming out rather later than perhaps most people do (she’s in her early thirties now) and the challenges she experienced in adapting to the mores of the queer scene. There’s a lot of love and loss, but with a twist. And her songs are a shade on the dark side as her chosen moniker suggests. Rookes was originally Rooks, as in the black bird which fascinated her as a visual artist.
As a straight guy (albeit with a surprising amount of lesbian friends when I total them up) I would not have believed songs with that subject matter could attract me but Rookes has the knack of being able to lure you into her world as indeed she has to do if she is to avoid being typecast within and amongst her own community.
It is still early days for Rookes but on the strength of her recorded material to date and this live performance I perceive a very talented individual who is thus far only a short way along the road towards realising her full potential. She is about to take some time off to write more material, for an album, but I understand that a Manchester date, in September, was arranged ad hoc out of this show, though the venue is not yet known. If the opportunity arises do go see her.
Featured image by Thomas Mellor courtesy of Rookes’ Facebook page