Kathryn Williams, Telfords Warehouse, Chester

Telfords Warehouse, Chester

This has been a big year for whispering songstresses. Norah Jones and Katie Melua have scored huge success, the latter despite conjuring up the most vapid rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah ever recorded. Kathryn Williams - yet to enjoy serious sales figures - must wonder what she has to do.

After three crystal-voiced albums of her own dark and insightful songs, the Liverpudlian singer-songwriter has released Relations, an album of covers that suggests she's having to compromise. However, Williams makes these songs her own. Mid-set, her spellbinding rendition of Lou Reed's Candy Says - written about a transvestite - becomes an anthem of feminine frustrations. When she sings the line "I hate my body", perhaps there's even a wry sneer at every marketing executive who's wished Williams was a little thinner, a little younger, or a little blonder. The raven-haired twentysomething will never have cheerleader looks, but Williams' aces are her vocal purity and an awkward charm that wasn't learned in stage school. Apologising before her gorgeous version of Tim Hardin's Hang on to a Dream, she chuckles: "You've got to take these chances to embarrass yourself in front of strangers."

Otherwise, the set takes in Williams' old songs and three piano-based newies that develop her complex balancing act of light and darkness.

Endearingly, she seems blissfully unaware of her capacity to hypnotise an audience into hushed reverence, frequently fretting: "It's quiet in here." However, at the end the cheers erupt, particularly following her own take on Hallelujah, a song of broken love sung so movingly you'd think she'd been dumped just seconds before going onstage. Referring to the song's previous occupants - John Cale and Jeff Buckley among them - she whispers: "I'm not trying to compete." And yet in every way, except chart positions, Williams leaves Melua and similar rivals scrabbling in the dust.

· At Phoenix Arts Centre, Exeter (01392 667080), tonight, then touring.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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