For Shah‘s first Edinburgh gig and Hidden Door‘s opening night, this gets a big thumbs up. The Tyneside songwriter, whose sonorous singing voice bears little trace of the Geordie brogue with which she addresses the audience, is a committed and convincing live performer, taking her songs to a new level for those familiar with her work, and making a good case for further listening for those who aren’t.
This music is much invigorated by being played live, as if the restrictions of recorded media are boxing in its power, and it’s possible to detect sides to it that get missed in recorded form. The sax, being more prominent, traces a line back to 80s ska, and casts Shah as a harder-edged Pauline Black, especially when the band face inwards around the drums, cooking up a storm, while Shah hops around down the front. To Bring You My Love era PJ Harvey is another obvious reference point, including the occasional incongruous sashay.
Opening with Place Like This, the set is heavy with songs from third album Holiday Destination. Shah’s vocals are both deeply soulful and punkily barbed, and depending what the song calls for you can get more of one or the other. Evil, for instance, becomes almost gospel here, and not just because of the lyrics. “All these folk, they think that I’m evil / Like I am the living devil himself.” Like the music that accompanies it, her voice is more effective for being freed from the studio.
In a short festival set, there’s little time for let up, so the gothy dirge Yes Men is five minutes badly spent. By contrast, Shah’s finest moment to date, Fool, is a beast of a number, and swells ominously to fill the wide open spaces of Leith Theatre’s magnificent auditorium with discordant discontent. Fast Food is another earlier number given space to let rip.
If there’s anything that undermines the power of her performance, it’s something she acknowledges herself. “I’m probably preaching to the converted,” she explains about another politically-charged number from Holiday Destination. She is, and her musical monument to the annus horribilis of 2016 is not enhanced by trite exhortations to “fuck Brexit!” between songs. Coming at the end of an evening where soapboxes have been much in evidence, you wonder what happened to just kicking back and unwinding of a Friday night.
Besides, the songs speak up for themselves. They are only weakened by explanation. “Where would you have me go? I’m second generation. Don’t you know?” she hollers on thunderous closer Out The Way, as succinct and powerful a musical retort as you’ll ever need. It blows the dust out of this old theatre’s rafters for sure.