Review: Judith Owen

Judith Owen
(The Pheasantry, 21st May. Review by Chris Parker


Judith Owen’s latest album, Some Kind of Comfort, is (accurately – see review on this site) described by her as ‘my most intimate and confessional recording to date’, chronicling, as it does so skilfully and affectingly, the sources and symptoms of depression.

A live performance by her, then, might reasonably be expected to have a slightly solemn, even sombre tone, but her feisty banter with a healthy-sized audience began as soon as she took the stage, and continued throughout her performance, so a range of emotions – sparked by the various songs from a pretty representative sample of her albums over the years – was explored during her absorbing 90-minute set.

She settled herself in with a rousing visit to the Police classic ‘Walking on the Moon’, her confident piano subtly buoyed by the matchless five-string electric bass of Laurence Cottle, and followed it up with a touching song dedicated to her husband Harry Shearer, for which she and Cottle were joined by the sonorous cello of Gabriella Swallow.

Only then did Owen launch herself into a couple of songs from the new album, ‘Trip and Tumble’ and ‘Hide Away’, interspersing subsequent selections with more quickfire responses to audience comments, plus occasional ruminations on her artistic vocation, perhaps best summed up by her wry admission that, asked casually how she’s doing, she cannot bring herself to lie, and consequently often startles her polite interlocutor by describing her mental state, a process she describes as ‘killing people slowly with the truth’.

The subjects of many of her songs conform neatly to this formula: of a score or so pieces in her set, a fair number dealt with (near-)death by drowning, Hurricane Katrina, and what might be termed the vicissitudes of love and affairs of the heart, all delivered in her clear, pure-toned voice over rolling piano and the most sympathetic of accompaniment from Cottle and Swallow, but she also lightened the mood somewhat with a rollicking visit to the Beatles’ ‘Lady Madonna’, and by inviting the silken-voiced Georgia Mancio to join her on stage towards the end of her set.

There is, none the less, a discernible edginess to Owen’s stage demeanour, reminding us of her lifelong struggle with depression, and of her admirably defiant assertion: ‘It’s because of music I’m still alive … it reaches parts other drugs/therapies cannot always reach.’

Her performances, though, are not simply introspective therapy; they reach out, as this one did, because, as she says: ‘I think we all think we’re the only ones not invited to the party of life. I’m just here to say, “There’s no party, we’re all scared and lost … some of us just fake it better.”’

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