Having postponed the original November date due to ‘reasons beyond her control,’ there’s concern that the snowstorm which has suddenly engulfed the UK may prevent Gemma Hayes from visiting St. Helens’ The Citadel for a second time. Luckily, the one-time Mercury Prize nominee has braved a four-hour crossing over the Irish Sea to get to Merseyside’s intimate former Victorian theatre, as have around 200 fans of her spellbinding fusion of My Bloody Valentine-esque shoegaze, acoustic folk and sparse electronica. The perfect time then to wheel out the eerie balladry of “Brittle Winter:”
The sun has been, now gone
The water’s bloody freezing
But instead, the 35-year-old attempts to counteract the adverse weather conditions with a set-list that presents a much sunnier disposition, from The Roads Don’t Love You lead single “Happy Sad,” a gorgeously bittersweet slice of Californian guitar pop which talks of the anti-depressant quality a certain “blue-eyed boy” holds, to Night On My Side bonus track “Evening Sun,” a lilting beachside lullaby which pleads for the extension of the perfect summer’s night:
My friends and I
Well, our party’s almost over
Why don’t you stay
Just a little longer please
Backed by regular touring partner Ann Scott, a one-woman band who switches from ukulele to xylophone to bass drum, often within the space of one song, Hayes’ cosy acoustic set-up eventually helps to warm up the audience who initially appear either too captivated or too bitterly cold to offer more than a polite clap, as does her string of effortlessly charming between-song anecdotes.
Indeed, the breathy New Order-ish indie-pop of “Keep Running,” a tale of losing one’s self in a strange city to forget the pain of a failed relationship, could have been named after the crowd’s response to her revelation that X-Factor judge Louis Walsh once advised her to “quit writing songs and date a celebrity” if she wanted to become a star. Whilst the tenderbreak-up song, “Oliver,” is made all the more compelling when Hayes admits its protagonist was in fact a former teenage sweetheart named Willie who used to bully her whilst at primary school:
You kicked a hole through my heart
And left me with the whistling sound
As the wind blows through
Her two cover versions prove to be just as majestic. After slightly deglamorising the filming process of the Pretty Little Liars series it was specially recorded for, Hayes somehow makes “Wicked Game” an even more haunting declaration of unrequited love than the Chris Isaak original. Whilst her breath-taking rendition of “Cloudbusting” is perhaps the only case where Kate Bush comes off second best with her own song, the stark arrangement adding a hypnotically intense quality to the fragility and vulnerability of the devastating father-son narrative:
I hid my yo-yo
In the garden.
I can’t hide you
From the government.
Oh, God, Daddy
I won’t forget
A rather arbitrary set – only one track a piece from her first three albums gets an airing – inevitably means that several fan favorites are notable by their absence. But the opportunity to see such a captivating performer in such a compact setting means few leave disappointed.