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Live review. Marisa Anderson in Cambridge

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Marisa Anderson’s nomadic nature tonight took her far from her American homeland to an old English function room at the NCI Sports and Social Club.

The durably dilapidated dive suited well, particularly for being romantically decorated with fairy lights and jazz lounge seating. The music found grace in the forgotten edges of common society, fitting a natural extension of its origins and authenticity.

Opening to lay the folk foundation were duo Naomi Randall & Lea Nicholson. A delightfully ‘odd’ pair with individual talents that married together for a sound as whimsical as it was wistful. Starting with a Mamas & Papas via Kinks style ‘Lazy Afternoon’ and onward through Northumbrian pipe songs played on a concertina and, as Lea described, “a miserable little song” called ‘Clogs on Fire’ – further defined as a mix between the Oldham Tinkers (big in Lancashire apparently) and Kings of Leon – they crafted a diverse set with impressive vocal and melodious skill. They also featured a clever twist when incorporating Joe Meeky psych sounds from a mobile app (via a laptop, via an amp). Their seamless mix of Northern jaunt and Southern soul was wholly a pleasure. Even a number of apologetic false starts, wrong keys, and forgotten lyrics suited the social club sprawl – a setting not calling for perfection but humanism.

Marisa Anderson’s performance was as much about her thought-provoking narration as her gorgeous instrumental electric guitar. Taking the stage with heavy western boots and long wild hair, she coolly recited meanings and stories behind each of her songs with peaceful affability.

Her songs are striking enough when they sound alone, but her prologues do invite further appreciation and deeper understanding. She introduced ‘Bread & Roses’ as a fight song from 1912, where women of the West struck against their industries for basic dignity and respect. That context rings through the tune, with its bright, hopeful start, quickly turning to a weary trudge increasingly bolstered by a rallied chorale.

‘Cloud Corner’, is told as being about hard days, and looking up not down to survive them. Light strings prettily dance around, while repetitive bass notes tried to pull it to the floor. There was an alternation between shrugging off and tuning in to empower the effect. ‘Resurrection’ was a ‘song about everything’ where Anderson quantifies spirituality by physics. With both her introduction and music, she logically described how everything that has ever existed still does and will continue to do so. Starting with a basic phrase, it lived through the length of the fretboard, nearly ending at the top but always returning.

Following the ‘song about everything’ with a ‘song about nothing’ (an apocalypse song) her set continued to explore the trials of life themed by support of kinship – something she conveyed importance for, whether societal or organic. She did so spanning genres beyond expected Americana and blues. ‘House of the Setting Sun’ was her desert song, one that could easily fall foul to such expected forms. Instead, it took on a Western science fiction following an alien perilously seeking aid with a droning, drifting ambience achieved by a unique cupping of strings.

‘Lament’ stood out for being the most affecting. From her new record, it’s about a recently famous photo of a Syrian child lying face down on a beach. Through a steel slide, her guitar truly wept. Plucking with perplexed and exhausted fingers, its exotic sounds carried African soul with its familiar strums underlaying an American observance. To follow was the only moment in the set where she went straight to the next song without orientation, simply letting ‘Lament’s’ emotion hang through with a need to recalibrate for what ensued as the heaviest, fastest and most relentless one yet.

The joy of Anderson’s music is in the living atmosphere it creates, and although you can interpret your own mood and story behind it, her considered story telling tonight made this experience hark upon the most rewarding traditions of live music.