Review: CocoRosie, Manchester Cathedral; Friday 7th May 2010
As far as cathedrals go, Manchester's is unprepossessing: lacking the scale of Liverpool Anglican, the Gothic grandeur of York Minster, or the out-there holy-relics otherworldliness of Durham. It makes an unusual and quirky gig venue. Upon arrival, the atmosphere was almost that of a scaled up Church youth club, with two makeshift bars, fairy lights, and watchful churchwarden types keeping an eye on things and guiding gig-goers to the toilets.
The stage was set up in the centre of the cathedral, against the main rood screen. Two rows of pillars defined the main space for watching. There was a longish wait for the first band to come on. No supports had previously been announced, only "special guests". The crowd was a mixed one, mainly made up of early-twenties types, with a healthy proportion of older folk.
The support band was Light Asylum, a duo hailing from the States. Their short set did not start promisingly, with synth drones and non-lexical vocals redolent of a horror film score, but this soon gave way to something quite special. Light Asylum's unique selling point is singer and synth percussionist Shannon, who is possessed of an extraordinary voice; the deepest contralto you will probably ever hear, and wonderfully expressive with it. The laziest comparison would be Grace Jones (there are vague physical and musical similarities), but a more meaningful one would be Diamanda Galas, who has a similar low range. The music, provided by Shannon and her synth-minding male accomplice, mixed downbeat old-school electro with industrial clanks and drones, and live synth drumming and glockenspiel. There is a hint of Coil's dark theatrics. Although the tone for their five-song (I think) set was minor-key, there are times when their songs swoop into euphoric choruses, with uplifting lyrics. Light Asylum were well-received and are worth investigating further.
It doesn't take long to prepare the stage for the arrival of CocoRosie. Things are shifted, and Sierra's harp is brought out by a roadie. The lights go down, and the Casady sisters appear on the right of the stage, blinking in the lights. They begin their set there, acapella, with what sounded like a cover of Stevie Nicks's Wild Heart. Both are dressed in old-fashioned nightgowns, with mask-like eye makeup. Bianca has accessorised her gown with a military tailcoat and a grey fur hood. The simple, haunting acapella number over, they take up their instruments for God Has A Voice, She Speaks Through Me, which is performed mainly by Sierra, a slow, minimal reading of the song. What looked at first like an analogue synth she was manipulating turned out to be a hand-cranked harmonium, which provided a drone accompaniment to her sweet vocal.
It is only then that the rest of the band come on stage. Notable among them are a keyboardist and a bespectacled beatboxer. They are all modelling the painted-on eye masks. The set really begins then, with Sierra continuing to sing in her distinctive soprano, and Bianca joining in on wind instruments, including a penny whistle and a snake-charmer's pipe. The first part of the show relied mainly on Sierra's operatic tones, with Bianca's cracked, spookchild of Billie Holiday tones taking a supporting role.
I am useless at remembering song titles, and with a set this diverse where the songs came thick and fast, it was a pointless endeavour. We get a hip-hop-flavoured Rainbowarriors (I think), performed mainly by a rapping Bianca and the beatboxer, title track of the new album, Grey Oceans, a lovely, chaotic rendition of Lemonade and a cover of Kevin Lyttle's Turn Me On, made into a swirling, swooning wall of sound. Shannon from Light Asylum joined them for one song, adding her contralto to Sierra's soprano and Bianca's unique style.
The performance elements of the show were suitably endearing and eccentric. Hats were worn and exchanged by various members of the band, with Sierra's pink mob cap donned mid-set later being used as a morris dance hanky. When not singing, each sister lip-syncs to the other's part, and Sierra in particular was enthusiastic in her dancing. She favours Kate Bush-style waving and twirling, as if performing a ritual, whilst Bianca breaks out the odd body-popping move too. During Hopscotch, both sisters came together for a cute playground clapping game. The whole show was set against a back-projection of fairground rides, insects, jack in the boxes and distorted images of the sisters, which created a pleasant kinetic effect on the rood screen and brought to mind a haunted playground at the same time.
The whole band returned for a two-song encore, with Bianca in a military cap. It was here that we got to hear Lemonade, one of the duo's poppiest yet strangest offerings. I left the cathedral feeling as if I'd been part of an art happening (do those exist any more?) rather than just a gig; thoroughly impressed by the vocal prowess of the sisters and not quite believing what I had just seen.