Nadine Shah review – 'She commands complete attention'

XOYO, London
This is a dramatic, compelling performance and one far removed from the down-to-earth Geordie revealed between songs

With her dark, defined eyebrows raised skyward, Nadine Shah struggles to sum up her songs. "Howling, banshee-esque," she decides with a hearty guffaw.

Since the 2013 release of her critically acclaimed debut album, Love Your Dum and Mad, Shah has been confounding description. Her gothic, jazz-influenced chamber pop is both lushly atmospheric and chillingly sparse, while the 27-year-old's pure, powerful vocals have drawn comparison to both a young PJ Harvey and time-ravaged Marianne Faithfull.

On stage, Shah's intensity, slicked-back raven hair and striking features recall Maria Callas, and although she's no conventional diva – unassuming in black jeans, top and jacket – she bears a tangible authority that commands complete attention. Standing at a keyboard, Shah plays the melancholy piano melody of Used It All with one hand, her head flicking sharply to the right as her voice ripples to shivery guitar chords. It's a dramatic, compelling performance and one far removed from the down-to-earth Geordie revealed between songs.

Celebrating the end of a European tour, Shah asks permission to sing Dreary Town in French, simply because "my brother's here and he doesn't believe I can do it". She professes nerves because her producer, Ben Hillier, is watching. When Shah sings, however, she's a different entity. Her softness turns severe as the scorned wife of Runaway and her narrow eyes reflect disgust during The Devil, while I Am Kloot's Peter Jobson churns up unsettling bass behind her. For To Be a Young Man, which sounds like Anna Calvi doing a Smiths cover, she pulls her jacket across her chest, adopts a masculine stance and gains discernible maturity.

But Shah's rise to fame has been a slow-burning one and there's a sense that she's desperate to move on. Her take on Dennis Hopper Choppers' mournful Blue and a new song Fools give her some palpable freedom, while her startling version of Julie London's Cry Me a River reveals just how ready she is to go beyond the banshee to something beautiful.

• Did you catch this gig – or any other recently? Tell us about it using #GdnGig


Betty Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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