Camden on a March Monday night is missing something. She’s not the same.
On the surface, at a glance she looks the same. Her bosom holds the same shops selling the same Union Flag-emblazoned Windsor wedding tat, to tempt tourists of lesser taste, jostling for shelf space alongside marijuana leaves stamped on everything from beanies and baseball caps to lighters and even sugar lollies.
Her pubs are all there, albeit a little lonely without so many of their Marlborough Light-sucking fan clubs huddling in their doorways and roped off sheep pens of puff. At least Camden’s last, token punk rocker is there, resplendent with Mohawk, studded leather and tartan trews, pins and souvenir-shop snarl. But he’s probably from Norway.
On a March Monday night Camden almost smells the same. Her familiar heady scent of street pizzas and quasi-oriental noodles of dubious quality fade and blend into the pungent sweetness of street-smoked weed, to waft amongst us like incense around her congregation of visitors and pilgrims.
She sounds similar too. Car horns blare their familiar cry of impatience with one another as sirens scream back, scolding, with their dire warnings of how such impatience can often be rewarded. There are pockets of laughter mixed in with a random shout or two that drift up and over the still, reflective water of Camden Lock.
A group of strumming Balkan buskers play well, cross legged on her cold, chewing-gum dotted, dirty grey pavement, seemingly oblivious to her seasonally cold stony kiss. They play below the Dingwall’s sign. By day unseen hands squeeze oranges here to make juice for eager thirsts. But Camden’s night, even her Monday night, is not for cardboard cups of freshly squeezed orange juice, although the cup at the busker’s feet holds only a few meagre coins and barely enough to buy even an orange juice. Camden is not at her most generous on a Monday night.
“HASH? WEED?” The stranger mumbles in a sales pitch devoid of any attempt to sell, confident in his belief that the product still sells itself after all these years despite, on this occasion, the odds being that the product in question is likely to be catnip or dried chunks of mud. Camden’s sometimes cruel sense of humour may be lost on any of the seller’s wide-eyed, naive customers tonight.
But she’s been around for a while now and she’s earned the right to laugh when and how she wishes. She may not be the same Camden as you would find on a Friday or Saturday night, or a Thursday or sometimes even a Wednesday. But she can be whomsoever she wishes, whenever she wishes, to whoever she wishes. You’re in her territory now and if you don’t like it you know what you can fucking well do.
We behold the peach coloured satin fabric of our passes,’ KT Tunstall’ scrawled in black Sharpie across the front and peel off the backs and stick them onto the bottom of our t-shirts, visible enough to be shown when needed, subtle enough not to be flashy.
We climb the curved stone steps and, by way of the bar, enter into the heart of the Roundhouse, taking in its ancient sturdy girders and ironwork webs. It’s busy for a Monday. It’s very busy and it’s still filling up.
We catch only the tail end of the support act, a twenty-four-year-old singer-songwriter called Laurel Arnell-Cullen, or simply Laurel to her fans and friends. Laurel can hold a note and hold it well. It’s a polished voice and one that can continue to carry her further on ongoing journey from bedroom recording to bigger things. The crowd seem to like her too.
On the way in we passed a brimming pop-up merch stall in the corner of the bar of the wallpaper table variety, sporting Laurel T-shirts, caps, vinyl and even a tower of paperbacks entitled ‘The Musings of Laurel’. Laurel has clearly been a busy young lady.
But muse all she may, tonight it is not Laurel that the Roundhouse is still filling up for.
It’s eleven years since K.T Tunstall last played here, in Camden’s jewel in the crown of music venues, and there’s been a lot of water under the Camden Lock footbridge since. Then she was riding on the critical and commercial success of her second album, ‘Drastic Fantastic’. Now, six albums, one divorce and a relocation to Venice Beach later, the Mercury Prize nominated and Brits and Ivor Novello award-winning Siren of St Andrews is back and touring her latest album, 2018’s WAX.
Co-written and co-produced by Nick McCarthy from Franz Ferdinand, Tunstall has described the album as ‘a focus on the body and our complex relationship with physicality’ which perhaps she is alluding to when she launches into the show by hollering; “Are you ready to kick Monday up the arse?” It would seem that the crowd are.
Already it feels like a family-like affair, here to greet the return of an old friend or relative, back briefly from her travels, with tales to be sung and told. There’s a cross section of age groups here in this capacity crowd, from the middle-aged and over, to teens and everything in between.
Monday first feels the force of Tunstall’s boot with opener ‘In This Body’ from the new album. It’s catchy and has energy and bite and benefits from the live treatment. Her band stays close.
She introduces ‘Other Side of The World’, her 2004 debut album-opener, by instructing everyone to raise and wave their phones in the air with their devices’ torches turned on, thus replacing the traditional cigarette lighter-thing with something more akin to an O2 commercial. But it works and illuminates a track that feels a little like a familiar, warm blanket, even if you thought, up until now, that you were busy doing other things when it was first released.
Next its new offering ‘Backlash & Vinegar’, a song she declares is about “someone trying to keep you down” which she delivers with silken-veiled venom. Her voice has gained a depth and rasp which, while still possessing that same honey, has a luxuriously deep undercurrent of bourbon with a Marlborough tickle.
‘Uummannaq Song’ from 2010’s ‘Tiger Suit’, is preceded by ’Little Red Thread’, inspired, she shares, by a wait at an airport during which she imagined the hearts and souls of people who love one another being connected by something visible and physical in the form of knotted little red threads of yarn. And my, Ms Tunstall can certainly spin a yarn. We’re treated to everything from the difficulties of long-distance relationships to the social etiquette of shitting on a tour bus, for which she teaches the non-Scots in the audience the correct term, that being a ‘Jobbie’. And be sure, she tells us, to “leave your jobbie at the door” on the way in to one of her shows.
Tunstall’s banter is easy and effortless, no air of pretension or being anything other than ‘one of the gang’. It’s a delivery that The Big Yin, Billy Connolly himself, would smile at and at times feels like it’s your mate’s cheeky young aunt who’s popped in from next door for a cup of tea, but wouldn’t say no if you had something stronger.
‘Hard Girls’ and the rich, bass-heavy ‘The River’ lead us into acoustic treatments of ‘Feel It All’, ‘Heal Over’ and ‘Ashes’, complete with a round of whiskies served midway for her and her band by their ever-attentive on-stage assistant, Divo, and a sing-along rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ for bassist, Mandy Clarke, on loan from of Scottish nine-piece death-reggae Ska band, Bombskare.
Clarke is one of Tunstall’s new all-girl backing band, the others tonight being Hattie Moran on guitar- sporting a noticeably better pair of guns than any of the Roundhouse security team, and Cat Myers of Stillhound and Honey Blood on percussion. Myers also drummed for Mogwai on their world tour last year while resident drummer Martin Bulloch recovered from surgery.
I highlight the fact that it’s an all-female backing band not because there should be anything at all worthy of mention in the fact that there are no men in the group (all-male bands are never commented on as such) but because there does appear to be a tightness in the interaction between the group that at times borders on an almost sisterly-like connection, often exchanging eye contact and smiles between one another, and extending to Tunstall at one point asking her band mates to name their favourite puddings.
Birthday celebrations done with, it’s back to the beginning with her 2005 folk-blues debut ‘Black Horse and The Cherry Tree’ and, in her words, her big ”Jazzercize hit” and the song that broke her into mainstream success when she performed it live on Jools Holland as a last-minute stand-in for rapper NAS.
Her audience of guests greet her “WHOO-HOO”-accompanied thumps to her guitar body with yelps and cheers as she kicks in the song’s trademark loop station layers, joining her in laughing off a false start, dismissed as proof that the show is live. The track builds up and into a blues mash-up with the singer demanding to know “Who likes blues?” The tone darkens as the show progresses, a gear shift, the road opens up before us, no one’s in a rush, a lower, darker mood envelopes us as we travel through the darkness that sits between midwestern towns. Tunstall is relaxed and in her comfort zone, a voice at times as classy as a ‘67 Buick Gran Sport.
Her all-to-brief rendition of Leadbelly’s Black Betty does the old work song proud. She can also blow a blues harp incredibly well and it feels that this is a direction of style and genre that she would be wise to delve into even deeper.
‘WAX’s ‘Human Being’ and ‘The Night Bowie Died’ are clear examples of co-writer McCarthy’s influence on the new album, the former in particular having a distinct ripple of Franz Ferdinand at its core. ‘Dark Side of Me’ and ‘The Mountain’ further demonstrate that there’s some solid song writing on ‘WAX’ while a return to 2007’s ‘Saving My Face’ – a song inspired by a documentary about the pitfalls of women having too much plastic surgery, is an appropriate example of how well some of her older material is ageing.
The band close the set with the unashamedly rocky, ‘The Healer’ first heard on her 2016 EP ‘Golden State’, and again as a redux on ‘WAX’ in which she effectively channels the spirit of Suzi Quattro who is clearly an influence on Tunstall, and rightly so.
For the encore, Tunstall punches a sizeable hole in Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven Is A Place on Earth’ a brave choice and one that rewards both her and her audience, before the band closes with her 2007- Patti Smith-inspired smash hit, ‘Suddenly I See’, to which the crowd accompany her, en masse, reacting like they’ve just received a kiss on the cheek from Auntie KT.
“How you feeling, London?” she asks, before drawing her show to a close. But she already knows the answer to this. She can see it in the smiles. She can hear it in the shouts. The mood of the crowd is palpable as the 3,300-capacity venue pours out its smiling guests, returning them once more into the waiting arms of the Camden-coated night.
You feel her gaze upon you before you see her step out from the shadow of the doorway, to be illuminated by the lights of the late-night off-licence, which sells solace through a grill to the lonely. “Give us a couple of quid” she grins through a chipped front tooth, eyes as sharp and bright as diamonds, can of strong lager swaying and spilling from her hand, cigarette burning down to the filter. You apologise and tell Camden that you don’t have any change and bid her a goodnight, wondering to yourself who she will be when you next meet.
And somewhere in the distance another screaming siren scolds.
Words Ritchie B. Paterson
Photo’s Jeff Moh