An At The Barrier favourite Maz O’Connor visits our writer’s home town – and astounds and confounds in equal measure.
Go back through the At The Barrier archives for as long as you like and you’ll find that our admiration for Maz O’Connor is no recent thing. Her 2019 album Chosen Daughter, was greeted ecstatically in these pages and, more recently, her splendid 2022 offering, the flawless What I Wanted – Maz’s COVID-inspired exploration of deserted cities, the challenges of consumerism, love, life, death, religion and more – was rightfully nominated as one of our 2022 Albums of the Year. So, when I discovered that she was to play in a venue near me – well – I couldn’t miss out, could I?
I’m ashamed to admit that, before last night, I’d never set foot in Temperance. Perhaps the name had put me off… But I’ve been missing something very special indeed. Temperance is a wonderful basement space below a chic coffee house at the bottom of The Parade in the heart of Regency Leamington Spa. I must have walked past the place a million times without realising the treasures within. As Maz remarked as she took the stage at the start of her set, “Places like this make me feel like I’m in Greenwich Village – these are places I was meant to be.” Coffee and cake are the order of the day – and that’s the perfect match for the ambience; swinging a cat – either by tail or whiskers is probably not advisable, but what Temperance lacks in acreage, it more than makes up for in comfort and intimacy.
Before the main event, there was the small matter of a support slot to enjoy. Wes Finch is something of a legend around Coventry, Warwick and Leamington. He’s certainly an established favourite at Temperance, judging by the familiarity that most of the audience showed to his material. He’s an accomplished acoustic guitarist, equally comfortable strumming, fingerpicking or throwing in the odd harmonic and solo or two. His songs, often based on traditional forms and ideas but uniquely his, are engaging and enjoyable and his stage manner is chatty and informal. As an appetizer for Maz, he was an inspired choice and his short 6-song set was well-received. For me, highlights included his opening number – a sad-but-enthralling story of a Friday night out that ended in tragedy, his 2016 ‘hit’ single (played four times on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire), the guitar extravaganza Just My Luck and closing song, Gospel Oak – the story of a boy’s thwarted longing for a preacher’s daughter with an intensive narrative that reminded me of a Show of Hands epic.
Temperance (the venue – I can’t comment on the lifestyle) and Maz O’Connor were made for each other. She’s an assured performer under any circumstance, but to see her in the confined space of this particular venue was a revelation, and the paired-back versions of her songs seemed like they were being delivered on a one-to-one basis to each member of the audience. Her voice, always a delight, had the room spellbound, especially when she hit the high notes. If you haven’t heard her – and that’s an omission you need to correct forthwith – the best way I can describe her vocal style is a glorious mix of the precision and determination of Joan Baez and the warmth and vulnerability of Kate Rusby.
Maz had split her set into two sections – a first half that, after set-opener Cordelia, a standout track from Chosen Daughter, focussed on songs from What I Wanted, and a second half that featured older, more established material. Now, one of things that particularly impressed me about What I Wanted is the inspired choice of instrumentation; nothing is overdone on the album, but the subtle use of strings, bass, piano – even clarinet on Lily and Lemonade Wine – adds a special richness to the songs. But, in the intimate surroundings of Temperance, Maz accompanied herself on just acoustic guitar and ukulele, and the effect was transformational. She took the trouble to provide a bit of background to each of her songs, but even so, the powerful messages and the feelings she invests in her songs came over so much more strongly in this format and setting.
WHAT I WANTED
The inspiration for What I Wanted came from her thoughts during the long walks that Maz took around various London suburbs during lockdown (and you can read more about the particular walks she took and the thoughts they inspired here) and those musings were crystal clear at Temperance. For example, the consumerist messages of Can’t Get Enough Of What I Don’t Need were spelled out, and the delivery of the song was simply beautiful. Maz picked up her decorated ukelele for the wonderful Jessica – her co-composition with close friend Will Gardner that examines the small-minded outlooks and attitudes of small-town folk and the homophobia of the catholic church. Maz described the song – a standout from the What I Wanted album as “A deep-dive into my subconscious,” and her delivery was spotless and absorbing. And “We’re 17 and I can do anything” is such a great line – we all believed that to be the case, didn’t we?
Maz stuck with the uke, and returned to the theme of consumerism, for When it Comes for You. Once again, with the sparse instrumentation, the version tonight was very different to the album cut, but, sitting close up, it all felt very warm and personal. And Maz shared a great tale – apparently, the bassline from the recording of When it Comes for You has been lifted and used for a French television programme called Nudes. Make of that what you will…
Regular listeners will be aware that a high proportion of Maz’s songs deal with female challenges and inter-relationships and Maz likes to ensure that the songs she writes pass the Bechdel test – the measure of representation of women in films and literature that asks whether, when at least two women converse, they discuss something other than men. Lily and Lemonade Wine is definitely a song that passes muster in this respect and tonight’s version, minus, of course the clarinet parts that so illuminated the album track, was divine – gentle, comforting and so very melodic.
Of all the songs in Maz’s set, it was perhaps Cable Street that was the best match for the Temperance setting. The inspiration for the song was Jamboree, a club in London’s Limehouse district with a similar ambience and ethos to Temperance – Maz once saw a balalaika duo there (“A sight I cannot unsee..” she remarked). Cable Street is Maz’s “Ode to live music” and it’s yet another highlight of What I Wanted. I’ve always considered the song to be her most Joni Mitchell-like and the spirit of Joni was certainly in the room tonight as Maz delivered a superlative version.
It was almost time for a break and, to take us into the interval, Maz had chosen a song from her 2016 album, The Longing Kind, to set the tone for the second half of her show. There’s a lovely story that tells how Crook in His Arm got its name – get Maz to tell it to you next time you see her – and she sent us off to the coffee counter having fully enjoyed her retelling of the story of her parents’ prophecies of disillusionment with London life.
THE SECOND HALF
What I Wanted is an album that thoroughly deserves a session in the blaze of the spotlight, but, as we well know, there are several more strings to the Maz O’Connor bow, and a few of those strings were pulled and flexed during the second half of the show. First up was a storming rendition of recent single, Santorini – Maz’s articulation of her dream to emulate Leonard Cohen and spend a few years drifting around that idyllic Greek Island (she’s like to have spent her time lazing on beaches but she was of the impression that there aren’t any beaches on Santorini; I can assure Maz that there are…) It was sung beautifully, to a fingerpicked guitar accompaniment, and the lyrics are so genuinely evocative that I’m sure that I felt the island’s black volcanic sand burning into my back.
Maz is justifiably proud that new single Sink has received Radio One airplay – quite an achievement, she assures us, for a “feminist folk singer!” That was followed by San Francisco – a song from Chosen Daughter. The song’s lyrics – they tell the story of Maz’s great aunt Mona and her forced displacement from Ireland to a Californian nunnery – are amongst the most articulate and engaging that you’ll ever hear and Maz’s delivery of song – simply strummed guitar providing the only necessary backing to that glorious voice – was captivating. And Maz’s lyricism was also on show with Loved Me Better, her Dylan-ish swipe at a supposed lover who fell well short of aspiration and expectation. “Only wanted sweetness from you – only ever tasted salt.” Indeed!
Maz’s second spot wasn’t just an opportunity to stroll down memory Lane; she also took the opportunity to unfurl a brand-new song. My Best Friend Had A Baby is yet another example of Maz’s ability to write lyrics that confound and astound in equal measure. The song relives the emotions that a lady can feel when a formerly close companion has a child – emotions that include a feeling of being left behind, but also the stirrings of motherly instincts in relation to the child that she may not even know. It’s beautiful and expertly observed. And, having taken our collective breath away with a new number, it was back to 2016 and The Longing Kind for Maz’s lament to the passing of summer, Winter’s Blues, a song that, in lyrics and delivery style, once again stirs that lurking spirit of Joni.
And we delved even deeper into Maz’s prolific past for a stunning version of the tragi-ballad, The Grey Selkie, a song from The Willowed Light (2014). In both form and content, it’s a song that I can well imagine being performed by Sandy Denny, and Maz has the perfect voice for it.
The intimate evening had passed like a whirlwind and, all too soon, we’d come to the end of the road. Maz signed off with a request – for her 2016 single, Skin. It was a divine ending to a divine evening. I loved the stripped back versions of songs I know well, I was totally absorbed by the songs I know less well, I was thrilled by the belief that Maz puts into her songs and, probably most of all, I was enchanted by her performance. It was Maz’s first appearance at Temperance – I sincerely hope that it won’t be her last.
And – I’ll be back at Temperance very soon, too, Forthcoming attractions include local lad Benji Kirkpatrick and At The Barrier faves Christina Alden and Alex Patterson. I sense the dawning of a long-term relationship between this writer and Temperance.
Watch the official video to Maz’s recent single, Santorini, here:
Categories: Live Reviews