Celtic Connections: Martha Ffion, Dave Frazer, Ruth Finegold at The Hug and Pint, 24/1/17

You can really hurt someone when you love them like that,Martha Ffion, aka Claire M. F. McKay croons on new track ‘Record Sleeves’, slotted neatly in the middle of tonight’s headline set.

If love can be painful, then Ffion and her band The Homemakers have certainly left their adoring crowd with a bout of heartbreak.

Despite these turbulent emotions, the overall mood of the evening is laidback and pensive, beginning with Ruth Finegold, who spins her solitary songs from a delicate web of crystalline vocals and pretty fingerpicking.

There’s a hint of Rachel Sermanni to Finegold’s often pastoral themes and her vocal delivery, which transitions smoothly between silvery lilt and haunting depth, making use of the audience’s respectful silence to fill the room with a lovely, minimalist cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hunter’s Lullaby’.

Suitably eased in, we’re now treated to New Zealand-born Dave Frazer and his band, The Slave Labourers.

Frazer’s moody, bluesy alt-rock well suits the venue, with its blue lights and bare bricks adding to the ambience of Frazer’s voice, which can be both satisfyingly gravelly and caramel-smooth, with romantic and often quirky lyrics that keep things safe from genre clichés: “hovered like a UFO”.

Frazer plays a range of original tunes, from “the dark and broody number” to “the light trivial twee number”; highlights including the plaintive ‘Old Souls’ and the languid and sexy ‘Specific Kind of Love’ which has the shadowy, velveteen jazz feel of a soundtrack to some classy saloon.

The room is packed full by the time Martha Ffion takes to the stage in black velvet, bathed in light behind a microphone entwined with white glowing roses.

Ffion and her band open with a couple of new songs which showcase their distinctive knack for combining loose, 1960s guitar rock—all bouncing bass and flourishing licks— underneath the winning charm of Ffion’s sugary melodies.

Ffion does sultry like no-one else, maintaining perfect poise throughout, lingering over lines as if coyly aware she’s dripping musical honey over every word: “they won’t touch your sugar skin”.

Third song ‘Wallflower’ whips up a livelier atmosphere, with its edgier rhythms and a doleful maturity, as Ffion assures “there’s no need to worry / we’re all waiting here for you” over lightly crunching guitar.

An old favourite, ‘Punch Drunk Love’, becomes a set standout, with its wistful lyrics intensified by subtle harmonies from Savage Mansion’s Craig Angus.

After Angus’ restrained yet passionate guitar solo, Ffion’s voice effortlessly climbs the octaves to reach a climax, before pulling back tenderly to reflect the song’s melancholy tone and sense of an ending: “I’ll carry you home one more time / and then it’s over”.

Throughout the gig, Ffion mesmerises with pastel-hued schoolyard nostalgia and lyrics glazed with dreamy imagery, as on ‘So Long’: “once we flew through clouds / miles above those sequin towns”.

However, such lyrical lushness is always accompanied by a sense of reflective wisdom, as songs like ‘So Long’ feels like a 1950s ballad, melding folky storytelling with the beauty of a bittersweet pop hook.

While most of the set has a lively, almost grungy vibe to counterbalance Ffion’s ethereal delivery, she admits with a twist of sass that one of the new tracks, ‘Baltimore’, is “the seediest song [she’s] ever written”, proceeding with a country-inspired pastoral number about a young girl in her pleated skirt, striving to navigate her way around the more sinister obstacles of small-town farm life and its leering eyes.

Still, Ffion pulls the country ballad style off well with both emotional conviction and a twinge of humour; reminding us, perhaps, that despite living in Glasgow her own rural heritage isn’t completely behind her.

As Ffion puts down her guitar and dances around dreamily with a tambourine, the set closes with surf-rock number, ‘No Applause’, where the audience applauds (with absolutely no title-related irony) as gritty guitars stitch their way through glittering lyrics: “but you feel significant / like a grain of diamond dust in your eyelids”.

It’s a short (half hour) set but a sweet one indeed.

Though busy mid-recording for the new album, Martha Ffion has clearly been honing her formula for cooking up pitch-perfect garage pop hazed with fairy tale vocals, and whether live or on vinyl, so far it tastes (heartbreakingly) good.

Words: Maria Sledmere

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