Elle Mary & The Bad Men – The White Hotel, Salford, 24/03/2018

There is something wonderfully fitting about the venue for this “homecoming” debut album release show. The bad men are exactly who you would expect to see hanging around this desolate but ultra hip barely-converted car repair shop on a bleak industrial estate, within a roof tile’s throw of the infamous HMP Manchester, formerly known as Strangeways.

The floor slopes like the non-League pitches Premier League teams dread and the ‘stage’, a concrete ramp, is raised about a foot off the ground. The bar is in what was the garage’s inspection pit, with the optics hanging out of the underside of a white piano like a cow’s udders. The only heating is provided by what looks like a vacuum cleaner channeling gases under a wall from an external engine. When the dry ice started up you’d have been forgiven for thinking they were testing a BMW for its carbon dioxide emissions. It makes the nearby Eagle Inn, the Bohemian champion of the last few years with its venue hewn out of a “Coronation Street” style terraced house next door, look like the Royal Albert Hall.

An unreservedly minimalist setting then, for a minimalist artist par excellence.

I have seen Elle Mary perform twice before, on both occasions solo, and the Bad Men, Michael Dubec and Pete Sitch, do add substance to her live show.  They are tight, and unobtrusive. They don’t look that mean, either; bassist Dubec has the distinct appearance of the gentle Hank Marvin about him.

What really stands out, apart from some snappy lyrics, is her voice, which particularly on the higher notes and when the volume is ratcheted up, is impressive; more so on stage in fact than on the recently released Constant Unfailing Night album or its EP predecessor ‘Bloom in Thickened Skin’. It is tailor-made for singing the Blues. Softly spoken and oozing humility, it wouldn’t be amiss even to compare her on the night with Joni Mitchell, and Elle Mary did start off as a folk singer before a relationship malfunction redirected her towards an amp and an album where that meltdown is put under the spotlight in songs like ‘Falling’ the first of the evening as on the album, and what should really be the closer, the strident, bitter ‘Behave’.

Indeed, the album order was followed faithfully throughout the 45-minute set.  Constant Unfailing Night is not a complete hatchet job though and several tracks such as ‘Undead’, which she presented solo, and ‘Later’ pay respect to her late father and you can’t help but notice the sincerity with which she performs them.

While minimalistic tendencies dominate most of her work, occasionally she does go off at a tangent, dragging the Bad Men along with her in what to them must be the closest to a jam they are going to experience under her patronage.  One of them is ‘Dark’ which has one of the most remarkable short and alien instrumental bridges you’ll hear right now. Another is ‘Pretend’, in which the album version’s instrumental ending was enhanced by an extended piece of guitar/pedal fuckery in which she created serious atmosphere.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite come off on the night because the guitar volume was mixed down way too low. But I suspect she’s got much more of this in her locker and personally hope to hear more of it.

If Elle Mary lacks in anything it is perhaps crowd rapport. The large audience was willing her on unreservedly but you suspect that the majority know her anyway and appreciate the importance of this show to her. She is Manchester-based, after all (though she has developed quite a following, strangely, in Italy, where she toured last year). She has a congenial personality but might want to consider a more robust stage presence as her career progresses and she plays more demanding venues where she is unknown.

There was no robustness lacking in the delivery of ‘Behave’ though, which is her signature song to date and traditionally her closer but which was relegated one place in the pecking order tonight.  You can sense the anticipation in the audience as she pens her response to an unwanted contact from the past before assailing the sender with the ultimate riposte and with the highest-pitched and loudest vocal of the night.

In a venue where you might reasonably expect to hear garage music and one not wholly appropriate to her style, Elle Mary served up a well-oiled Jaguar of a folk-rock performance. With the right breaks and assuming she wants to set the bar high she is an artist capable of achieving recognition nationally, and beyond.

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.