It’s the second night of this year’s Llais and those of us packed into the Wales Millennium Centre’s spectacular Donald Gordon Theatre are in for a real treat: a rare live performance from Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes. How better to kick off a festival that celebrates the power and resonance of the human voice than with one of the finest vocalists around?
First things first. Bat For Lashes require a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be transported out of the ordinary and into an alternative dreamlike dimension of Khan’s own creation. Gwenno is set to close proceedings on Sunday with a bespoke show incorporating theatrics, but for Khan interpretive dance is second nature. She mimes firing arrows into the crowd, performs facing a mirror at the back of the stage and at one point leans into the witchy vibe by using a walking stick as though she’s stirring a cauldron. Ridiculous on paper, perhaps, but captivating in person.
And then there’s her extraordinary outfit – a sort of diaphanous gown that looks to be fashioned entirely from wedding veils. Add in the exaggeratedly dramatic gestures and the overall effect is somewhere between silent-movie heroine, ghost of a Georgian flapper girl summoned by a spirit medium, and holographic Princess Leia pleading for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s help.
Khan’s time out of the limelight is attributable to having a daughter in 2020, and three years on, upcoming sixth album The Dream Of Delphi has been inspired by the experience of motherhood. She opens with an appetite-whetting three-song taster – including the title track, whose beats and bass allow the venue’s potent sound system an early opportunity to flex its muscles.
Of course, she’s also spent a protracted period offstage because of COVID. Tour dates following the last BFL record, 2019’s LA-flavoured Lost Girls, were rudely interrupted by the pandemic; tonight, Khan rectifies that, performing The Hunger, Desert Man and – best of all – a dazzling piano-led version of lead single Kids In The Dark, stripped of its 80s stylings and incorporating a portion of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors.
Also on the agenda are the first four tracks from her 2006 debut Fur And Gold. Trophy remains a remarkable single, Horse And I commandeers a harpsichord to great effect, What’s A Girl To Do? is a note-perfect homage to the Shangri-Las and the delicate Tahiti’s “money”/”honey” rhyme recalls Smashing Pumpkins’ Cherub Rock and Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome To The Jungle. Little wonder that the album made such a significant impression on its release, refreshingly unorthodox amid landfill indie; its follow-up Two Suns wasn’t too shoddy either, by and large a bold and triumphant foray into pop, as exemplified this evening by Daniel.
Throughout, Khan is accompanied only by one other musician, on violin and vocals: could she have filled the stage with more? But the scaled-back setup helps to focus attention on her voice and create a feeling of intimacy in a sizeable auditorium. Close Encounters, performed while stood on a fake rock, is the last song of the main set – the sole representative tonight from underrated fourth Bat For Lashes album The Bride, though taking any track out of its conceptual context is no doubt tricky.
The encore brings an acapella rendition of Sleep Alone – Khan encouraging us to provide metronomic accompaniment by patting our thighs – before Laura, arguably her finest ballad, sends us out into the night and (sadly) back to reality. There have been pretenders to Bat For Lashes’ throne in recent years – Lana Del Rey, Weyes Blood – but she’s not about to relinquish it any time soon.
Bat For Lashes, Llais @ Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Wed 11 Oct
words BEN WOOLHEAD photos POLLY THOMAS