With one hand on her heart and the other reaching out like a sleepwalker, her gaze fixed on the middle-distance, Cate Le Bon feels unreachable. Summerhall’s Dissection Room is wider than it is deep and although much of tonight’s sold-out audience are stood within touching distance of the Welsh musician and producer, she still seems far, far away.
Her latest and fifth album Reward, recently shortlisted for the Mercury prize, was written slowly over a solitary year that Le Bon spent alone in a cottage in the Lake District, learning to make furniture. Of all her records, it most fully fuses Le Bon’s enigmatic avant garde impulses with her penchant for lush, folky grandeur, and at its core is an indulgent kind of seclusion described in such plain language that it feels like a riddle.
“I take some time, I have some thoughts”, she sings musingly on album and set opener Miami, over quiet tick-tock percussion and a solemn brass fanfare.
Marooned under a smog of blood-red lights, she stands side-on to her mic stand, occasionally raising her hands to clap in time with the marimba like an exceptionally stoic flamenco dancer. So polished are her five-piece, multi-instrumental band that her new songs feel more solid and certain played live than they do on record. The set is pushed forward by the rickety propulsion of Magnificent Gestures and the cool shimmy of You Don’t Love Me, and older favourites such as Crab Day’s Wonderful slip in easily.
Instead it’s new album highlight Mother’s Mother’s Magazines that unsettles the mood. The song’s dark rattle is egged on by the staccato ha-ha-ha of the saxophone, with Le Bon’s half-spoken lyrics set in shadow by some unspoken catastrophe.
Even her conversation is gently staccato: “Welcome to the sauna,” she murmurs, mid-set. “Is everybody OK? My dress doesn’t breathe. Death is imminent.” Le Bon’s enthralled audience are desperate for her attention, applauding at the slightest nod, and her band orbit her so lovingly that they rarely take their eyes off her. So tonight she looks alone but not lonely; a private storm of poised emotion that we are invited to witness rather than share.