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3 stars


St John’s Church, Cardiff, Fri 21 Apr


Tonight’s gig – which takes place in a wonderful venue somewhat removed both geographically and spiritually from the main hub of the city’s music scene – is something of a two-part homecoming.

First to receive a warm welcome is Ellie James aka Little Rêd, who hails from Cardiff but has decamped across the Severn Bridge to Bath. We shouldn’t begrudge her the move, though, given that it’s resulted in her finding a similarly musically minded housemate to supply backing vocals. Her songs are perhaps a bit slight and don’t linger as long in the memory as they might, but she has the confidence to tackle (and make a decent fist of) Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting and there’s enough on show generally to warrant a repeat viewing when she returns for the Healthy Mind alldayer at Gwdihw in July.

Like James, Sarah Howells is also a Welsh émigré, born and raised in Pembrokeshire but now living in London. A former Cardiff resident, she’s clearly delighted to be performing on home soil and gently disparaging about crowds back in the English capital. As well as enjoying an unlikely parallel career providing vocals for trance tracks, Howells has previously garnered considerable acclaim as one half of melodic folk-pop duo Paper Aeroplanes – which probably explains the sizeable turnout.

To the mild consternation of some of those in attendance, however, her latest project Bryde are a very different beast: lyrically angsty and musically electrifying. On record, the likes of Help Yourself, To Be Brave and particularly Less have serious bite, the latter’s chorus boasting the deliciously sharp line “I’d like nothing more than to care less”. Played live in this venue, though, their energy and ferocity seem to be sapped away, the songs muzzled and tamed.

Better suited to the setting are tracks like Steady Heart, which see Howells performing solo without her two-man backing band and therefore most effectively showcase the strength of her superb voice and the beauty of her guitar playing. And yet overall there’s a nagging feeling that she lacks the distinctive individual identity of other comparable artists such as Angel Olsen, Nadine Shah or Scout Niblett.

That may come with time, though, and certainly the partisan audience are generous in both the respectful silence they afford her throughout (phantom inbetween-song whistler aside) and the applause with which they greet the conclusion of her encore.


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