Review: Gwyneth Herbert - The Sea Cabinet Live at Wilton's Music Hall

Gwyneth Herbert - The Sea Cabinet
(Wilton’s Music Hall. Opening night 23rd May 2013. Review by Alyn Shipton)


I have to declare an interest at the outset. During the gestation of this imaginative and absorbing project, Gwyneth Herbert was kind enough to find time to sing a series of concerts with my Buck Clayton Legacy Band. As a result of this, not only am I impressed from an on-stage as well as a critic’s perspective by her endurance, resilience and versatility as a singer, but in a series of time-lapse snapshots, I’ve watched from afar as The Sea Cabinet developed. Originally conceived during her time as composer-in-residence at Aldeburgh, the piece has grown from a somewhat haphazard collection of musical aquatic objets-trouvés into a tightly focused suite, with a complex tissue of sung and played musical textures, plus spoken words and (for the Wilton’s shows at least) back projections of images.

The conceit is simple: a spoken diary of things found, seen, experienced and collected on the shoreline, linking musical evocations inspired by the collection noted in the diary. Underlying the objects in the cabinet is a theme of women and the sea, so we share the experiences of fifty Fishguard ladies as well as the dislocated population of Alderney.

From her debut album First Songs through Bittersweet and Blue, via Between Me and the Wardrobe to All The Ghosts, Herbert has had the knack of writing catchy melodies and simple verbal hooks that help her songs to linger in the mind. Indeed Lorelei has lingered from All The Ghosts into the Sea Cabinet, getting a stirring and plaintive performance from Herbert and her fellow water sprite Fiona Bevan. The two voices melded well, though in character they are very different, Bevan’s dainty, delicate delivery being a model of control, whereas Herbert’s invocation to piratical lovers Plenty Time For Praying in the Morning was lustily delivered a capella from the side of the auditorium with no microphone, every syllable being crystal clear. However even in the forgiving acoustic of Wilton’s crumbly Music Hall, the balance did not always favour Herbert’s delivery. Sometimes the backing was just too enthusiastic, and her more intricate syllables were lost.

That said, her regular band came up trumps with Al Cherry producing his usual level of guitar wizardry and Dave Price somehow managing to be relaxed and in control of drums, piano, violin and goodness knows what other effects. Special guests the Rubber Wellies added plenty of texture, with Christophe Capewell’s mournful fiddle and melodica catching the wistful melancholia of times past particularly effectively. (Their opening set, with Fiona, was also a delight, with a particularly catchy Catalan cycling song setting the tone for the evening.) Overall it was Gwyneth’s night. Her songs will grow and develop with live performance, but this first full outing for the show was a triumph and after a whooping, cheering standing ovation, the audience spilled out into the narrow alleyway beyond the theatre, humming The King’s Shilling. There’s no better advertisement for a musical show than this!

We interviewed Gwyneth Herbert about The Sea Cabinet

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