Pop review: Juliana Hatfield, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

"You find yourself approaching middle age, playing another scuzzy rock club ... I'm still playing places for kids," Juliana Hatfield said in August. In that case, the quilted interior of the half-full Queen Elizabeth Hall must be balm to her soul. There's even a vase of flowers on a side table next to the microphone.

It's been years since the Boston songwriter wielded the kind of clout that had music magazines putting her on the cover and Jeff Buckley touring as her opening act, but she has never stopped making albums. There's a new one, How to Walk Away, but this show is pegged to the publication of her autobiography, When I Grow Up. It's a gig of two halves: in the first, Hatfield reads extracts and sings acoustically; later, she returns with a plugged-in band and delves into her back catalogue.

The first half is the more engaging by a long way. Contrary to what you might expect from this wan, Winehouse-skinny woman, Hatfield has written a cracking story about her life as a leading member of Boston's 1990s alt-rock scene. She reads expressionlessly, her sweep of shiny hair hiding her face, but the content is fascinating. She falls for a junkie, plays clubs so wretched the backstage "toilet" is a plastic cup, is traumatised by her mother's affair with a rock star - all of which repeatedly underscores the fact that Hatfield doesn't think much of herself. Accompanying acoustic numbers such as Tourist are frail and bruised.

The all-music second half is anticlimactic. Though there are joyous squeals when she plays the near-hits My Sister and Your Way Or the Highway, she's hampered by her wafer-thin voice and propensity for fading into the background at her own gig. A clear case for giving up the day job and starting afresh as an author.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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