My Shrewsbury reviewer Simon Cousins watched Jesca Hoop 'cast a spell' over the audience at Shrewsbury Abbey last night in another brilliant gig from Live in the House.
After Meg Chandler’s bright, infectious supporting set featuring beautifully recorded backing tracks and a winsome live performance, 'Witch Princess' Jesca Hoop took to the stage with musical partner Rachel Rimmer and instantly cast a spell over her audience at Shrewsbury Abbey last night. Every pew was full.
Jesca marvelled at the 'acoustic wonder' of the 11th century church and, as red smoke billowed behind her, she drew us into her first number ‘Sudden Light’, setting up a mysterious rhythm with muted arpeggio chords played on a Gibson electric guitar. Rachel accompanied with silvery chords and bewitching close harmonies. There was no introduction, just a swift immersion into the 'black water' of Jesca’s otherworldliness.
Jesca was initially unsmiling, enigmatic. Her first spoken words were: “How can I get away from white light?” and the lighting crew instantly dimmed the spots. She gazed down the aisle, a ghostly figure in bronze eye shadow. “We are all made of the same stuff,” she mused, “just variants of the same thing. How did we manage to create unsafe environments?”
Then she urged us to “forget about politics for a moment” and simply be in the moment. It wasn’t hard to do: we were already spellbound. Jesca’s stage presence was curiously unsettling; she constantly kept us guessing with great, swooping melodies, from a deep register reminiscent of Nico to a crystalline top range. And all the time, those spectral two-fingered figures on her electric guitar led us onward.
“I’m from California,” Jesca said, “where the redwoods grow. The Pacific West Coast: blue-grey water, apples and wine country. Beautiful.” She told us of bonfires on the beaches and of a night when the moon cast its light on a large driftwood tree, the size of a sycamore. She spotted the silhouette of a man sitting upon it and resolved to “interfere” with him. She sat down next to him and “let a pregnant silence hang” before telling him he should go out into the moonlit water. He could not: he was born with his heart outside his chest, held in place with a delicate skin graft. Thus she introduced the next song, “Born to”, from her 2021 album “The Deconstruction Of Jack's House”, one of six she has released since 2007. Two muted guitars, two soaring voices.
“Joy will carry you home,” Jesca said. “There’s more to life than the way we organise ourselves,” before opening up ‘Free of the feeling’, where “we go look for the dark.” Jesca finds joy in the darkness, but was profoundly disturbed by two members of her audience talking during her performance. “It’s taking me out of my place,” she protested. “We’re just here to listen.” And then later, “Zip it.”
Jesca followed with the “kindest song” written for her sister who was “horrible” to her in 2020, a falling-out that lasted two years. She and Rachel’s round robin vocal interplay froze time for a few minutes.
“I’m fond of some traditions,” said Jesca, but explained that there was nowhere to go here while waiting for an encore, “if you ask for another with rapturous applause.” We did.
She and Rachel pretended to leave the stage and return. “I lived outside for six months,” Jesca recalled before her last number, “travelling through Arizona and California. I followed some elk hunters and asked for the large, furry, elk’s testicles. I hollowed them out and made them into a handbag.”
The final number “hearkens back to a simpler time.” It was just as beguiling as the rest of her set: unique and timeless. I queued for a vinyl copy of “The Deconstruction Of Jack's House”, which Jesca signed for me with a flourish. We assured her that all but two of us had been silently transfixed by her mesmerising performance and that joy certainly would carry us home.
Last night’s show was staged by Shrewsbury’s groundbreaking ‘Live in the House’ team. For details of future events, go to www.liveinthehouse.com