Aldous Harding @ Elisabeth Murdoch Hall

I almost missed out on the enigmatic Kiwi singer-songwriter’s Melbourne gig, but in the end her live show made me an even bigger fan of her idiosyncratic take on folk.

This sold-out concert almost didn’t happen for me, as I missed the tour announcement and didn’t rush to find a ticket until it was too late; luckily for me, a work colleague had a spare ticket for the Thursday night and very kindly invited me along. Then there was another hiccup when the show was cancelled and moved to Sunday night because of an illness in the band, which secretly suited me better than a mid-week night out. I was pretty stoked to find out that our seats were in the very first row to the left of the stage (even if my neck was slightly sore by the end of the night from tilting my head to the right for almost three hours).

H. Hawkline, heavily-accented Welsh multi-instrumentalist who also happens to be Harding’s partner, was a pretty good warm-up act as they go. He did some charming banter at the start of his set, before introducing his “band” – a bulky old-school tape player that reminded me of the one my parents had when I was little. I quite enjoyed his indie folk tunes and plaintive vocals, but his final song did raise a question: at what point does a supposedly live performance become something more like a karaoke? Sure, I’ve seen plenty of solo acts with looping pedals and suchlike, and live shows have used pre-recorded elements since the technology allowed for it. It crosses a line for me though when someone just basically sings along to the full band on a tape player.

I mean it as a massive compliment when I say that Aldous Harding is one of the oddest performers I’ve seen live. Together with her sharpish facial features, her severe minimalistic look for the night, a sort of a knee-length grey kimono and hair pulled back into a ponytail, seemed to add even more to the overwhelming intensity that you sense the minute she walks onstage. Her presence though is more quirky and endearing rather than intimidating, and I was really happy that I got an opportunity to watch her from the first row.

Throughout the night, her moves were weirdly slow and deliberate, and when a song didn’t require Harding to play an acoustic guitar or keyboard (or a coffee mug that she hit with a stick), she’d often dance in her awkward unique way, with jerky puppet-like movements led by her elbows. Add to that long intense stares at the audience and strange facial grimaces, and you have a compelling one-off performer unlike anyone else I’ve seen. Though there wasn’t much audience interaction, there were many times when Harding looked obviously moved by the amount of love in the room.

The set leaned heavily into Harding’s excellent new album Warm Chris, as well as 2019’s Designer, so I recognised most of the songs. The backing band did an excellent job with their often sparse contributions, but it’s hard to pay attention to anyone else but Harding, as she delivers the bizarre, cryptic lyrics and does her vocal chameleon thing, shifting between tones and timbres from song to song. It’s hard to pin down what makes her deceptively simple alternative folk music so compelling; perhaps it’s just the sense that it couldn’t have been written by anybody else.

It was a beautiful evening and I could easily see why my work colleague was keen to see Aldous Harding again and again. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for her next string of gigs.

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