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Ren Harvieu – Manchester Deaf Institute, 22/10/2019

It isn’t often you get to see the rebirth of an artist. Especially one that should have been a household name from Manchester to Mongolia by now and surely will yet be one.

Ren Harvieu recorded her first album in 2012 having signed to Island when she was 17 on the strength of demos posted on Myspace but before it was released she broke her back in a freak accident. Rushing back perhaps too soon after recovering she lost her recording contract despite the album entering the charts in the Top Five, inclusion in the BBC’s Sounds of 2012 and featuring as a ‘Bond girl’ singer at the BBC Proms. To coin a phrase, nobody did it better.

The physical problems became mental ones and she all but disappeared from the scene. I saw her perform a mile or so from this venue at the Soup Kitchen four years ago and while the voice was still there she was clearly in a bad place in her head.

Then in 2015 she met Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers, who’d seen her playing on Later with Jools Holland and a writing partnership began which eventually led to a second album (which will be released next year on Bella Union). It was fitting that he was the guitarist in the band tonight. Romeo, wherefore were’t thou?

Recording an album is one thing but appearing before your ‘home’ audience in your comeback gig is another, especially when the family is out in force in the sold-out audience, as they usually are. Not to put too fine a point on it, she smashed it.

Turning out like the diva she is in a shimmering black dress which could have belonged to Alexis Carrington in Dynasty (“I’ve borrowed it, so I can’t sweat in it too much”) and with an almost Goth-like appearance she reminded me of a friend’s observation that she has the look now of a 1950’s Hollywood movie star. Judging from this performance she’ll soon be playing the Hollywood Bowl.

There’s a certain mischievous humour about her. Early on she introduced herself as a “Salfordian Shon-toose” presumably meaning chanteuse but you’re not sure if she’s sending up a lack of sophistication that doesn’t actually exist. In fact she has a similar stage persona, ranging from self deprecatory to brash, to that of fellow Salfordian Elkie Brooks.

The majority of the set, which she twice changed as it went along, was the new album, but three old favourites from the first were retained; ‘Through the Night’, ‘Do Right by Me’ and ‘Open up your Arms’. Every single song was introduced, often with the story of how it came to be written.

There’s a distinct difference between those from the first album and those from the second. These later ones are more sophisticated and employ a broader vocal range and she has all the vocal and visual tricks to pull them off, including little asides, hand movements, and facial expressions.

The new material includes songs such as ‘Strange Thing’ which were written during her bad years, and which reflects back on carefree teenage days clubbing in Manchester and another which identifies the value of being from Salford. If Coronation Street needs a new theme tune they know where to look. ‘Little Raven’ was written cathartically as a song to her younger self when she had no label and didn’t know if it would ever be recorded.

There are ballads, quite a few, and there are bangers. The one constant throughout was the quality of her voice. While you’d expect it, some of this performance was literally breathtaking, including for herself. On a couple of occasions she had to halt for a few seconds to get her breath back. There was one sustained note; I believe it was in ‘Cruel Disguise’, which was unlike anything I ever heard before; absolutely astonishing.

Yet at the same time, quite a lot of the new material doesn’t really test her vocally in the way the big anthems that are ‘Through the Night’ and ‘Open Up Your Arms’ do. When she gets into the choruses of both of those songs the effect is literally spine tingling.

Towards the end she began to talk more openly about her hopes for the future. She said on several occasions “this is just the beginning” and “I will be the next Bond star”, presumably referencing a critic’s comments after her Proms appearance. I wouldn’t bet against it.

Often compared to the late, great Dusty Springfield, Ren Harvieu could at times have been Shirley Bassey as well tonight. She has acquired a vocal range to die for and, along with it, that indefinable thing called star quality. The future is bright. The future is Salford.

Ren Harvieu will play Mirth, Marvel and Maud in Walthamstow, London, on 24th October. No other shows are planned presently.

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.