Joan Wasser runs on stage with sidekick Timo Ellis to commence the “interpretation domination” of this evening with a rendition of T-Pain’s Ringleader Man. Wasser’s trademark honeyed voice softens the edge of lines like “My rhythms and rhymes keep bitches in line”, but never so much that you lose sight of the disharmony between the original sentiment and Wasser’s own musical preoccupations. She dedicates this opener to Freddy Mercury, and while she may not have quite the legendary showmanship of the Queen frontman, they clearly share the same childlike glee of playing dress-up, and that is what this evening is about. Where she does venture beyond where you might expect her tastes to lie, she is never mocking or condesceding in her approach, only consistently faithful. This is particularly apparent with Overprotected, a pre-breakdown hit of Britney Spears’. It isn’t slowed down to a mournful piano ballad, it isn’t overlayed with lush strings and ornamentation, it’s the same pop anthem that never quite reaches its psuedo-feminist aspirations. Tonight isn’t about underlining the superiority of indie over chart music, it’s about celebrating their shared inspirations.
Next up is a messy but infectious cover of Baby, by Iggy Pop — a man, Wasser tells the audience, who makes her feel normal. The first original song of the night, Wasser moves on to the midnight soul of Feed The Light. She takes her time with this one, longer and ever-so-slightly slower than the album version, advancing towards an angelic coda which displays the high end of her range, not usually on show but all the more special for it. She plays a couple more songs from her first album, as well as a handful of new songs, and their inclusion serves almost as a reminder that Joan as we know her has not left the building tonight. Versions of Public Enemy’s She Watched Channel Zero and T.I’s Whatever You Like are mid-set highlights, while finishing with an urgent version of Sonic Youth’s Sacred Trickster her voice is almost reminiscent of Robert Plant.
For her first encore we get another new song, The Human Condition, and played solo on piano it recalls Real Life from her debut. With the curfew now passed, we are on borrowed time for the last song, Nina Simone’s Keeper of the Flame. This is the moment the gig is elevated from great to astonishing. The song is built upon a few lonely notes picked from Wasser’s electric guitar, with help from Ellis on the Baritone Ukulele. At first he keeps his distance, only hinting at something approaching, but as it reaches the bridge he proves his worth with a haunting, beautiful solo. Every string plucked resonates throughout the venue and shoots through the heart, commanding absolute silence, and by the time he is through Wasser turns to the audience, eyes glassy with tears, and rightly invites a round of applause for her partner in crime. Wasser manages to trump this with an extended farewell chorus, an absolutely devastating repetition of the title. This is no longer about dress up, pretending to be a gangster or a pop princess. She doesn’t just cover Simone, she channels her, and leaves us at the end of this characteristically fantastic gig reeling with the disbelieving wonder of a séance.