Bat for Lashes @ Enmore Theatre, Sydney (30/01/2013)
Tonight’s show (and this is a show, not a sweaty beer-stained ‘gig’) opens with Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, looking like she can’t believe her luck. She beams the kind of wide unreserved smile normally only seen on children and the very drunk. Opening with ‘Lilies’ from The Haunted Man, Khan sings its statement of gratitude with unbridled joy, “Thank God I’m alive!” It’s the mark of an artist on the brink of recognition, not one who is seven years and three albums down the line.
Since 2006, when she arrived with a rumoured membership to the local Wicca coven, Khan’s mystic side has always been overplayed. Still it’s hard not to see her as some kind of goddess. Dressed in rainbow coloured metallic pleats, her cape reveals otherworldly wings in shimmering hues. The thousand or so faces gazing at the stage are transfixed like dutiful acolytes in the presence of their deity. Khan moves as if channelling earthy energies, possessed by powers beyond her control she slinks and jerks in response to hard beats and cool arrangements; the mechanics that provide an industrial counterpoint to the defiant range of her vocal melodies.
Operating the various pullies and levers is Bat for Lashes’ band. Between them they pick their way through a stage set that looks like a stand off between the past and the future. A cello, theremin, harpsichord, guitars and various black boxes stuffed with samples and electronic twitches make up a semi-circle of familiar and strange looking sound makers. Despite Khan’s mesmerising presence (see hyperbolic gushing above), it’s her musicians that embolden the arrangements. For all their cold-blooded origins, synths and electronic beats transition into living things with a pulse. Things that grunt and groan and power their way through the likes of ‘Pearl’s Dream’ and crowd favourite ‘Daniel’, making the songs less measured, more strident than they are on record.
Ramping up the songs’ foundations amplifies the dance floor’s influence on Bat for Lashes’ back catalogue. Not so much the refined thrust of modern R&B, more the heavy, tribal rhythms that provided the soundtrack for illegal raves in muddy fields at the back end of the ‘90s. It’s relatively unsophisticated yet totally affecting. In the same way those parties inspired a communal experience, ‘Priscilla’ gets hands in the air. The precision of the band’s hand clapping echoes around the theatre as we respond to Khan’s signal that we absolutely must all join in.
If we’re happy and compliant during ‘Priscilla’, we’re slack-jawed and silent during ‘Laura’. With the band disappearing into the darkness, Khan is left alone, drenched in white light. Her voice is remarkable; it rings hard and strong in the ears, yet still carries the fragility of Laura’s yearning for her halcyon days. It even manages to render the clunky, “you’re the train wreck that crashed my heart, you’re the glitter in the dark” worthy of a wet eye or two.
The Haunted Man’s title track brings Khan back to the stage for the encore. A girl next to me starts dancing in a weird hyper-excited way, totally unrelated to what’s being played on stage. She’s lost in that rare place when you’re so happy to be dancing you forget to give a fuck what anyone else around you might think.
Khan’s joyful energy is hard to resist. She may not look like anyone else here, she may not live in worlds that any of us recognise but when she waves at the back row like she’s just spotted them in Coles or yacks on about how she went to the Botanical Gardens and didn’t see any bats (although she did see them last time, so, yes that was all good) she’s more like us than maybe we realise or is, at the very least, the most likeable goddess you could wish to meet.