Joan Wasser, the eponymous Joan As Police Woman, has an incomparable musical pedigree which can be matched by few. A classically trained violinist who rejected the world of classical music, she once described her disillusion with it stating that she ‘didn’t want to make classical music my life, the Beethoven symphonies have already been played a million times and I am not going to do it any better.’
Subsequently, she joined punk bands, learned bass and guitar, and followed her own musical path via punk through to indie, chamber pop and rock, all the while honing her abilities as a songwriter. During her career, she has worked with renowned songwriters who, arguably, are colossi of the pop and rock music canon including Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, John Cale, Anohni (in her Antony and the Johnsons incarnation), and Lou Reed.
Whilst she may not have been directly influenced by the people she worked with it can be argued that, following this outstanding performance at St George’s, she easily matches them in talent and musical ability.
St George’s was the perfect venue for this solo show, featuring Wasser on heartfelt, warm, and often jazz-inflected vocals, piano, guitar and vintage sequencer. The acoustics, proximity of the audience to performer and ambience ensured that, despite the venue being near full to its capacity of almost 600, the gig felt intimate and personal throughout.
The concert began in a somewhat subdued fashion. Starting promptly just after the indicated doors open time, which caught a few people out, the opening songs were played on the piano, with no introduction and no between song conversation. Admittedly, if Wasser had leaped onto the stage shouting “Scream for me Bristol!” it might have confused the devoted fans who were in attendance. Sometimes there is something to be said for silence and space to think at gigs, and this was one of those times.
At the end of Warning Bell, her third number, she seemed to relax into her set, said “Hello, how are you?” and before the crowd could interact too much (that would come during the second half of the show) immediately began to play Forever and a Year, inspiring much enthusiastic applause. However, the applause soon diminished to a pindrop silence from the respectful crowd who simply wanted to hear the songs.
Sometimes solo shows by artists can show the limitations of their ability, this was not the case with Joan Wasser. The songs were pared back to their very essence, living or dying by their creator’s sheer talent as a lyricist and musician. And every single song lived and breathed and was lived and breathed by Wasser and her crowd, by the time she finished We Don’t Own It, dedicated to Elliott Smith, the crowd was hers to do with as she pleased. And there was not a single objection as she finished the first half of the show with the outstanding Start of My Heart and Christobel.
After the interval Wasser seemed in rather more relaxed and playful mood; maybe she knew she could probably get away with anything with this audience, the between song chat, anecdotes and off the cuff remarks grew more frequent and hit the mark every time. Anyone expecting a sombre performance would have been pleasantly surprised by just how damn funny she could be, often before she played a song detailing love or loss, a very smart move as it would lighten the atmosphere and provide a greater contrast to the heartfelt, literate lyrics.
It is hard to choose stand out moments from the second half. The crowd-pleasing Human Condition was greeted with cheers of approval, as was The Magic Lyrics her final song. However her version of Kiss by Prince could have been a showstopper if done by a less talented artist, languorous, easy and laid back, the simple interpretation was stunning, her getting to crowd to sing a rhythmic “Get love, lose time” and working off the cuff with that was jaw dropping but in the context of a note and tone perfect gig, it was but nothing less than expected.
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