There’s something unexpectedly relentless about Cate Le Bon’s set tonight. Cloaked in black, bleached hair slicked back, black at the roots, she looks every inch the wonky chanteuse who’s come to pick up from where ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ left off. She pretty well oozes cool. Sometimes she looks like she wished she didn’t.
The choice of venue helps. Portland House in Cardiff Bay is a Grade 2 listed pile of old bank, full of Doric columns and battered 1920s chandeliers. A kind of wedding venue cum conference room for hire, it lacks a proper lighting rig, so she’s lit from the slightly-too-low stage, from behind, giving the gig both a make-shift grandeur and an uncomfortable kind of intimacy. We could be in a run-down club off Las Ramblas, or the Overlook Hotel on a brisk night before the bad things happened.
It’s the perfect counterpoint to her voice. There’s something very Robert Smith about the way she unsmilingly works a song. Like Smith, she dares the audience come to her, keeping herself within a very personal and cold, even funereal range. And like The Cure in their early days, the music is kept very tight and close. A humidly oppressive tick-tock beat anchors a song like ‘Daylight Matters’ to its own space. Even when she’s singing ‘Love you, I love you, I love you, I love you’, it’s with a sense of someone mumbling into the void.
The danger with something like this is that it could all come across like an art college idea of what this kind of thing, this coolness wounded by desperate longing, is supposed to be like. Or that it could seem whimsical. And on the album, certainly, it can feel a bit contrived from time to time.
Live though, her band bring something heavy and purposeful along with them. ‘Home to You’ is locked down by the bass, and on ‘Wonderful’ the spirit of The Velvet Underground and Nico looms out of the blood-red lights.
“I think about dead flowers / Stinking up the corridors and wounds”, she sings off-handedly on ‘You Don’t Love Me’, while her horn player gets stuck into the guy trying to play the guitar across the stage. Then on ‘Mother’s Mother’s Magazines’ things get ghoulishly off-kilter somewhere in the background. We’re in territory suggestive of the clockwork golems that inhabit Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones or Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’. She’s put together a magical band, and you can see it on their faces – they know it’s something a bit special.
Perhaps Le Bon’s most direct performance of the night is on the cracked ballad ‘I Just Wanna Be Good’. Shorn of surreal imagery and any fiddly bits in the arrangement, it finally feels like she’s talking to us. It’s reminiscent of watching one of the great sirens of old-time country and western, Tammy Wynette or Bobbie Gentry, prowling half-bored but hopeful around something sweet and sentimental, all steel inside. ‘The Light’ is another moment of vulnerability, pointing finally to way out of all the gloom before the show lurches into a furious, pounding version of ‘What’s Not Mine’.
The Velvets are back for this one. The band really hammer it. It’s a mesmerising, protracted finale of pounding drums, everything else pulsing around one repeated note. After that, there’s just one encore, the hesitant and hymn-like ‘Meet the Man’, affirming that the desire to love is sacred, ‘Love is good / Love is ancient to me / Love is you / Love is beautiful to me’, and feels like a summation, as though we’ve gone through something religious with her and come out the other side.
You might have noticed the big guns coming out for this one – Tom Waits, Herbie Hancock, The Cure, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Bobbie Gentry and Tammy Wynette. More than any other Welsh artist, you get the sense that with Cate Le Bon, that’s the scale of the ambition. Whatever it is, she’s got it. I went in expecting to be a bit underwhelmed and got completely blind-sided by how good she was. I’m still not overly keen on the albums but live, Cate Le Bon is a welcome slap in the face.