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Lail Arad and J F Robitaille – Gullivers Lounge, Manchester, 06/12/2017

Tucked away in a far corner of Gullivers venue in Manchester, just past the toilets, is a hidden room, ‘the Lounge’, which is about the size of a bedsit in Lilliput, and in which there is a cupboard where the sound equipment is located.

Holding around 25 people, “intimate” doesn’t do it justice. It is perfect for a certain type of acoustic performer(s). Fenne Lily put on a great show here about a year ago and tonight is the turn of London’s Lail Arad and Montreal’s J F Robitaille, a pair of deep thinkers and clever wordsmiths  who only met by chance last year but who already  have the look and sound of a seasoned duo.

They’ve just come off the back of a 40-date world tour including multiple cities in India, and Middlesbrough, and Lail Arad describes herself as “frazzled”. What’s more, there’s no luxury hotel room awaiting them; they’re heading straight from the show to the Megabus that will take them to London overnight. Such is the joy of touring, taking the National Express to stardom.

Enthusiasm can wane over the course of a long tour and in her traditional opening song, ‘Winter’, Lail Arad in particular seems to be a little tired and jaded, singing very quietly; nothing like her previous performance in Manchester (during which she was memorably served soup in a coffee mug), when she had a backing band. However, as they move on to their first jointly recorded song, the up-tempo ‘We Got it Coming’, both shift up a gear and remain at full revs for the remainder of the show. The fact that it is being live-streamed and watched by various relatives around the world may play a part.

The two of them are highly regarded individually for their wordplay, “Ooh, we survived the winter, more twists than Harold Pinter” being the first of innumerable rhyming couplets that pepper their lyrics. They really are up there with the likes of Squeeze and Carter USM in that department.

The format is that they take turns singing a few songs each, with the occasional duet. JF Robitaille is less well-known in the UK but in Canada is regarded as a sort of “Second Coming” Leonard Cohen (he even lived on the same street as the High Priest of Pathos), though it’s an analogy he’s uncomfortable with personally. Actually, with his woolly hat and slightly languid style a better one might be Badly Drawn Boy.

Lail Arad is quite different. She has as many facial contortions at her disposal as does Tracey Ullman, though she shows restraint with them tonight. She also has form where Leonard is concerned, as a huge fan of his and she dedicated a tribute song to him on his 80th Birthday, ‘1934′. The upshot of that song, as she sings about “how it feels to be the lady of a lady’s man” is that she would have been his lover, but “it’s a shame you were born in 1934”.

Indeed it is towards the end of the show, as she performs that song and J F Robitaille immediately follows with a “real” Cohen song, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, with Lail Arad giving vocal support that the comparisons between them start to make sense.

There are several other covers during the evening and Lail Arad jokes with the audience as to how many points she’ll give to those who can guess them. The first one, The Ramones’Danny Says’, falls entirely on deaf ears but it’s hardly what you expect at an indie-folk evening.

There are few disappointments. The main one is that some of Lail Arad’s better-known songs from her album The Onion are not played, including the title track, and ‘Milo’, though an early popular one, ‘Everyone is Moving to Berlin’, does make the cut. As she explains, the instrumentation is not right for them on the night, especially for ‘My Love’, one of the songs of 2016 and one that really deserved the huge airplay it didn’t get. Yet.

This “an evening with” format in a tiny venue with most of the audience seated works perfectly for a pair of artists that appear to be made for each other professionally. They’re as comfortable together as, say, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, or Peters and Lee (analogies they won’t welcome for sure), though on an entirely different intellectual level, or more aptly perhaps Leonard Cohen and Judy Collins.

Their future as a duo is uncertain; both have solo writing projects on the go. But should they decide to write and record together meaningfully there is more than enough on show tonight to suggest a promising one. An album of some of their stronger individual songs reworked would be a good start.

Photo courtesy of Laila Arad Facebook page

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.