Live performance is about making an impression, and Alela Diane Menig has made one before she has even set foot on stage. At the advertised start time of 9.15pm, it is not the songwriter who appears but a steward, who turfs the entire audience out of the room to allow the very tardy main attraction time to soundcheck. It is an inauspicious start to Alela's only British show - and expectations are high, in view of her debut having been proclaimed album of the year by Rough Trade's independent chain of record shops. But when things eventually get under way, grumpiness dissipates as the place surrenders to little incantations masquerading as songs.
Alela operates in the sector of Americana where the natural world and the world of emotions overlap, spawning songs painted with the forests, rivers and rolling hills of her native northern California. She has a backstory almost too folkie to be true - a childhood in a former goldrush town and a job dishing up hash browns in a diner - which imbues her music with the twang of authenticity.
Here, it is just her and a guitar - and she's a pretty rudimentary guitar-plucker - but there is magic in the air. She sings quietly, songs leaking out as if she's half-spooked. Her debut album's title track, The Pirate's Gospel, is a desolate sea shanty, and Tired Feet conveys a weariness that no rest will ease. Eventually, she relaxes, fortified by images of home, such as "the drive I take through the valley and hills to my grandparents" that inspired Dry Grass and Shadows. Aptly, she has a song about winter, White As Diamonds, and sings it dreamily, as if watching crystals drift in a snow globe. "Gaping holes where diamonds should be," she sings, unfathomable and faraway. But all told, she is special indeed.