NADINE SHAH + LIFE | LIVE REVIEW
The Globe, Cardiff, Sun 15 Oct
If recent health problems end up bringing the curtain down on the musical career of The Fall’s Mark E Smith, he can put his feet up in front of Bargain Hunt safe in the knowledge that he’s left an indelible mark on popular culture, and that his legacy lives on in the form of bands like LIFE. The Hull quartet’s vocalist, Mez Green, has Smith’s trademark precipitously descending intonation down to a tee, though looks more like Brett Anderson or Jarvis Cocker after a three-day lock-in at the Good Mixer in 1994.
Musically, they’re scrappy and wired, no believers in niceties (as one ditty has it), flying the flag for politically engaged British punk alongside the likes of Idles and Shame – and, in Ba Ba Ba, Euromillions and Popular Music, they’ve got the songs to make an impact well beyond these four walls and well beyond the end of this current tour. Nadine Shah’s enthusiastic patronage is understandable.
Shah has long been spoken about in the same breath as PJ Harvey – the noirish songs; the rich, unashamedly theatrical vocals that seem as though she’s savouring every single letter before it leaves her mouth – and latest album Holiday Destination, explicitly and passionately political and liberally laced with saxophone, certainly does little to dispel the parallels with Polly Jean’s most recent work. What sets the Geordie apart, as Pitchfork reviewer Laura Snapes has pointed out, is that she’s singing from a position of personal experience, the second-generation immigrant daughter of a Pakistani father and Norwegian mother attempting to come to terms with life in a post-Brexit world in which racial prejudice seems to be on the rise and there’s “a fascist in the White House”.
That Shah is fiercely (and justifiably) proud of Holiday Destination is immediately evident from the fact that she and her band (which features producer and collaborator Ben Hillier on drums) kick off with a trio of new songs: Place Like This, 2016 and the title track. The latter’s clever chorus “How you gonna sleep tonight?” works as both an expression of compassionate concern for those who risk their lives to reach Mediterranean shores in search of sanctuary and a bitter rebuke for the tourists who complain about their arrival. Stealing Cars – wryly introduced as “the hit” – follows; it’s a gift for fans of her back catalogue, but, like Runaway from her 2013 debut LP Love Your Dum And Mad, now serves largely to underline the quantum leap she’s since made.
Perhaps inevitably, the set then sags a little, though Evil proves another high point, Shah singing about her mental illness and relishing the opportunity to ham it up as a pantomime villain, the Daily Mail’s worst nightmare made flesh. As this would suggest, her subject matter might be serious, but the mood is far from sombre. Over the course of the evening, she repeatedly embraces the mop-topped man mountain that is legendary Bristolian serial gig-goer Big Jeff; accuses Theresa May of having stolen a line from Yes Men (“She probably streamed the album, the bastard”), champions immigration (“You lot wouldn’t be half as good-looking without it”) and introduces one song as having been a hit in Lithuania – inexplicably so: “I have an ex-boyfriend who lives there, but I can guarantee he’s not bought it – he fucking hates me.”
The abrasive skronk of Out The Way, dedicated to her dad, closes the main set but it’s only fitting that the night ultimately ends not with a song seething with anger but with one that celebrates resilience and courage in adversity (Mother Fighter). “Listen to me”, she implores in character as a Syrian refugee – but also as a rapidly maturing artist whose early work has given her a platform from which she is now determined to speak out. We’re all ears.
words BEN WOOLHEAD