Adrian Masters witnesses a live performance from former Cocteau Twins vocalist Elizabeth Fraser.
You should know from the outset that I can’t be objective about anything to do with Elizabeth Fraser. Her songs and her voice are too intricately involved in the soundtrack of my life as they have been for the last 28 years. They’re more than just favourite songs. I’m more familiar with them than any others; I return to them over and over again. They’re touchstones against which I judge all other music. As I say, I can’t be objective.
Also I saw Cocteau Twins four times as well as one appearance with Massive Attack. I know how ill at ease Elizabeth Fraser is on stage. The Cocteaus split 15 years ago and since then, she’s made sporadic guest appearances, but never performed solo, never sung Cocteaus songs with any musicians other than Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, never made it normal for her to be on stage singing a mixture of the old and new.
All of this is by way of explaining the sense of anticipation and, yes, trepidation I was experiencing ahead of her first solo gig after that 15 year gap, at Bath Pavilion, which in itself was a warm-up for her appearance at this year’s Meltdown festival at the Royal Festival Hall in London that I saw two days later. This return has been made remarkable by her long absence and, in relative terms, long silence.
Let’s get some important things out of the way. Her voice is still beautiful, strange and characterful. It’s changed and stays almost exclusively in the higher range, but it’s recognisably that which made those songs so remarkable.
It’s no surprise that she still looks uncertain on stage, nervously fiddling with a mixer attached to her mic stand, her earpiece and an iPad mounted on another. She said nothing between songs, although she smiled and laughed, particularly when someone at Bath shouted out that they loved her. She laughed too when she made a mistake soon afterwards. The most she spoke at the London gig was to introduce guest guitarist Steve Hackett.
The songs fell into two categories: new material and old Cocteaus songs.
The good news is that the new songs sound very good indeed, engineered to work around her newer, fragile voice. In particular ‘Metal’ sounds like a lost prog classic, all changes and crescendos. There’s a further prog connection. At the London concerts, Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett joined her to play acoustic guitar on a new song called ‘Make Lovely.’ On that song, her voice was at its most intense, almost a whisper. Both nights it was listened to in absolute breath-held silence.
The devoted fans at both gigs probably would have applauded whatever she chose to give us, but there was a clear sense of delight in the audience reaction to this unheard material that must encourage her finally to release it.
The Cocteaus songs were always going to be a challenging prospect. Her extraordinary voice was after all one-third of an extraordinary group. At their best Cocteau Twins songs were a fusion of three remarkable musicians and it’s important to remember that sometimes the magic formula didn’t always work live.
Her new band and singers are themselves an exceptionally talented bunch. Three of them are from Spiritualized, including the eccentric Welsh synth player Tim Lewis, known as Thighpaulsandra. The backing singers, Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson and Lucy Potter, are performers in their own right.
But they aren’t Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde and never could be. And at Bath, for some of the songs, that seemed like a problem. Stripped of their Guthrie character the songs echoed around the Pavilion making it seem like Fraser was singing them with a Cocteau Twins tribute band.
It was very different at the Royal Festival Hall. Perhaps it was the space and certainly the sound there was better than in Bath. But in London, the band, the singers, and Fraser gelled better on the old songs than they did two days previously, particularly on ‘Donimo’ from the Treasure LP and ‘Frou Frou Foxes’ from Heaven or Las Vegas. They sound different, stripped back and structurally altered to suit Fraser’s voice as it is now. I still wasn’t sure about ‘Pitch the Baby,’ but, then, I never have been.
It takes some getting used to and maybe that’s the point. What we Cocteaus fans have never had is the sort of transition that, say, Smiths fans or Beatles fans had when the songs they love are re-interpreted by one of their creators and fashioned into something new.
It takes some getting used to seeing and hearing backing singers too, but Jo Goldsmith Eteson and Lucy Potter take on the various harmony lines that Elizabeth Fraser would have sung herself previously and wrap their soprano voices around hers. At Bath, theirs were sometimes louder in the mix than hers, but that wasn’t a problem in London.
(Incidentally, I’ve been in Twitter contact with Jo and asked how she coped with Fraser’s made-up words. She told me, ‘Luckily Liz has them written out, so just had to make my own notes on pronunciation!’ Fraser herself has said that she’s had to ask other people what sounds she was making on some of the old songs.)
The point is that this band isn’t Cocteau Twins; the versions are different to those fossilised on record. And on some of them, that change is for the better. It’s difficult to describe the performance of ‘Song to the Siren’ with which the concert ends. It’s very different to the low-toned version that she sang for This Mortal Coil, but it’s mesmerising and haunting sung slowly in a higher register.
The encore prior to that brought a similarly altered ‘Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops,’ the song that means most to me of any song by any artist. And on that I have to plead my lack of objectivity again. I can’t tell you if it’s improved or not. All I know is that for the first time in my life I was listening to my favourite singer singing my favourite song. That’s quite an experience.
This seemed to be a turning point for Elizabeth Fraser. She’s spoken about how, before being asked to perform at Meltdown by Antony Hegarty, she found it too painful even to listen to the Cocteaus’ songs. Over the course of the two concerts I saw, it certainly seemed that she’d not only come to terms with the past but was enjoying performing the old material.
She also has a clutch of very good solo songs and a band which plainly admires and supports her. I have a feeling that she might not leave it fifteen years until the next time.