#nottinghamrocks: Natalie Duncan, Nina Smith & Indiana – Nottingham Theatre Royal, Saturday September 23
Originally published in the Nottingham Post and Metro.
This is an exciting time for Nottingham’s music scene. The debut albums from two of our best-known acts, Jake Bugg and Dog Is Dead, are scheduled for release in October, bringing renewed national attention to the city, and every opportunity is being taken to shout as loudly as possible about the amazing wealth of talent that we have to offer. Banners have appeared on city centre streets, proclaiming us as “the most vibrant music scene in the UK”. Two large-scale events, the Branch Out Festival and the Festival of Nottingham, will offer a platform to dozens of local acts. And by way of an overture to all of this, no less a venue than the Theatre Royal saw fit to open its doors on Saturday evening, to three of our finest female singer-songwriters, accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra.
Since making her live debut just five months ago, Indiana has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of the city’s most hotly tipped new talents, and her simply staged performances, backed by a lone keyboard player, have won her many admirers. However, nothing could have prepared us for such a transformation, as the shy newcomer re-emerged as a fully-fledged theatrical diva (even the hairdo was new, a striking combination of shaved skull and golden curls), adapting her performance style to the lush orchestral backing with the ease of a seasoned professional.
Four original compositions and a cover (of Frank Ocean’s Swim Good) were given stunning new arrangements by Jonathan Vincent, the show’s musical director, turning Indiana’s stripped down piano ballads into dramatic production numbers, which took the singer into a whole new dimension. Everything about her performance felt boosted and amplified, particularly the way in which she could switch emotional gears in an instant: pleading one moment, contemptuous the next, with an expression that could flick from timid vulnerability to steely rage and back again, in the space of a single line.
“That truly was the single best experience of my life”, she told her supporters after the show. “As well as the scariest”, she added – but the fire in Indiana’s eyes on the Theatre Royal stage signalled that this was where she truly belonged.
Nina Smith is one of the best-known characters on the current Nottingham scene, and a major supporter of her fellow artists, whose collaborations with figures from the hip-hop, R&B and dance communities have already demonstrated her flexibility as an artist. Undaunted by the orchestra behind her, she rose to the challenge with relaxed good cheer, and a determination to enjoy every minute. “I’ve asked them to play my next gig at The Social”, she grinned. “Some of them looked interested!”
Jonathan Vincent’s sympathetic arrangements added new colours to Nina’s open-hearted songs of love, longing and loss, meshing beautifully with the strumming and box-bashing of her regular three-piece band. Highlights included a scintillating percussion break in the middle of Sexy Surprise, and a soaring orchestral swell towards the end of This Love, which would have melted the hardest of hearts. “Most of these songs were written in my bedroom”, Nina explained, “so to hear them here is pretty special.”
For the final number of the first half, the twelve-piece G.O.A Choir joined the already crowded stage, for a reworking of R.E.M’s Everybody Hurts which soon spun far away from the original, turning itself into a whole new track. Glammed up to the nines, with outlandish costumes, hair and make-up, the self-styled “Gang of Angels” provided a suitably celestial chorus, as Nina Smith brought her set to a triumphant conclusion.
Opening with the title track of her debut album, Natalie Duncan began the second half unaccompanied, with her most starkly arresting lyric: “Sometimes I feel you looking for the devil in me, like I’m a dying dog and I’m begging for your bones.” Switching from raw vocals to stately, neo-classical piano, she ushered in the orchestra, who accompanied all eleven songs of her set – another astonishing achievement for arranger Jonathan Vincent and his troupe.
With her rendition of the Etta James classic At Last currently sound-tracking a television advert, and with appearances on Later With Jools Holland scheduled for Tuesday and Friday of this week – alongside The Beach Boys, Muse, Public Image Ltd and The xx, no less – Natalie’s star is rising, after many years of patient graft and hard struggle. Some of her most painful experiences are inevitably reflected in her songs, but there’s room too for tender sweetness and fond reflection, such as on Old Rock, a tribute to a grizzled, alcoholic regular in the city centre pub where Natalie once worked.
Elsewhere in the set, the sultry, low-slung Black Thorn provided a showcase for some truly outstanding vocals, while the sheer drama of Sky Is Falling and Villain Hands turned both tracks into worthy candidates for a future Bond theme. Became So Sweet upped up the tempo, bringing a few people to their feet, and the sombre, anthemic Uncomfortable Silence – like Nina Simone with a side-order of Radiohead – closed the show, drawing a deserved standing ovation.
Although stylistically diverse in most respects, all three performers shared one very important quality: absolute, heartfelt sincerity. Thrilled but unfazed, each one of them stepped it up to the next level, seizing the moment and using it to amplify their talents to the best possible effect. Forget the hype – this was a landmark show for all the right reasons, and an event in which all involved should take immense pride.