Somnambule - Writing About Music

Jane Siberry

27th March 2006

The Barbican seemed strangely hushed, almost intimate in a way I hadn't experienced before. The support act - a duo called Griffin House - were fascinatingly anodyne and mercifully shortlived. After a brief interval, Canadian songstress Jane Siberry took to the stage attired in a rather marvellous trouser suit and sash. From the very first moment, her appearance accentuated the intimacy we'd sensed on arrival. She took her place before a single microphone stand, a couple of acoustic guitars and a grand piano at her back. With a prerecorded backing track, theatrical, but precise gestures and of course her voice, she wove an atmosphere of delicate, but determined oddness. She spoke of childhood memories - perhaps her own, perhaps fictive - with an economy of description that achieved a remarkable clarity. The effect was akin to a sudden shaft of sunlight illuminating a scene in pinpoint detail. The events she described (falling asleep on a bed of moss, following a group of children with strange foreheads as they asked Newfoundland fishermen questions and so on) were skewed versions of everyday reality, but each section managed to act as a dream-like context for the songs she played on her miniature acoustic guitar. Siberry's narratives were delivered almost haltingly as if improvised on the spur of the moment, as the enrapt audience appeared to simultaneously hold its collective breath and will her on. The precious atmosphere wrought by Siberry's unique mixture of strength and fragility was made more magical still by small, but significant actions such as her mid-song departure from spotlight and microphone to sing a few brief lines without amplification in semi-darkness. A little later, as she sang what I'm told is her most famous song, Calling All Angels, she paused to allow part of the audience to sing the chorus and it was as if she'd enlisted a professional choir, such was the pleasing harmony of their delivery. Still later, in the course of singing a traditional 400 year old song, she announced - with just the hint of a smile - that an untethered white horse was blocking the parking lot.

The evening was made up of two parts, the first and longest of which was woven together with her dream narrative. The second, final section comprised audience requests. Endearingly, on attempting to exit the stage after the first section, she could be seen fumbling with the curtains at the back of the stage, a route unavailable at the Barbican which requires performers to depart via the stairs at the side. On her return, she asked for three words to describe London and was supplied with 'expensive', 'vibrant' and 'Routemaster' (the now retired red London bus familiar around the world), amongst others. 'We love you Jane' shouted an audience member and she paused for a long moment seemingly both pleased and embarrassed. She covered songs that may have been called (I'm a Siberry novice) The Valley and Everything Reminds Me Of My Dog in a fragmentary stream of consciousness. For her final encore she sang a promise of love to teenagers upon their safe arrival on the other side of their journey to adulthood. That spirit of playful generosity was one of many elements to a performance that will remain in the memory longer than most.

Colin Buttimer
Published by Me

Image of Jane Siberry singing