Imogen Heap has that indescribable something that makes other artists envious. It’s not just her amazing classically trained chops and theory, or her effervescent presence and personality onstage and off. No, she has that mysterious quality that is hard to put your finger on. It was most clear when she recently performed at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon.
The show was a bit unusual by traditional rock concert standards. Besides being a sit down concert, which this fan finds quite welcoming, after years of being moshed over by frats in combat boots, Imogen Heap also acted as host for the evening. Before each of the sets by her opening performers she would come out and give us a little insight into what drew her attention to them. It was an intimate touch that made it that much easier as a concert goer to enjoy Geese, and Ben Christophers, as an extension of the Heap family rather than impatiently detest them as obstacles before the main event.
Geese started the night off with one of the more interesting experiments in sound that I’ve heard recently. The highly skilled violinists, Emma Smith and Vincent Sipprell wove together extreme skill, sustained notes, and looping technology to create three vastly different instrumental pieces that were two parts avant garde and one part musical playground. The result was a shaken but not stirred 20 minute musical collage that was truly a pleasant surprise. “Tundra Bean”, the final song of their set was a string picked staccato drenched percussion lovers dream, as they were joined by percussionist Chris Vatalaro who pushed the energy of the song into overdrive.
Next on the bill, was the multi-instrumentalist talent Ben Christophers, who proved to be an accomplished troubadour. His songs formed a nice shift of gears from the edgy sound of Geese. He performed each of his songs by himself, with accompaniment by his Macbook Pro (with an exception of one in which he was joined by bass player, Armin Metz. Christophers songs showcased lyrics, melodies and harmonic explorations that were of the more familiar pop structures. The songs served well to bridge the transition into Imogen Heap’s set.
What can you say about Imogen Heap that hasn’t already been said? Her concerts feel more effusive and an audience dialogue than most of the gigs I’ve been to. Heap’s began when she entered the stage spinning a bullroarer, an Australian aboriginal instrument, above her head producing the tonic note of what would eventually become “The Walk”. It was a perfect example of how she approaches things in a refreshing way, such as when she later invited both the members of Geese and Ben Christophers back onstage to act as her backing musicians for the entirety of her set. It is something that I wish more musicians would try. It adds an unique feel to familiar songs that I can only imagine would organically change with each tour and subsequent additions and subtractions of the players that results, making every show near you something that you cannot miss. When a musician sticks with the same backing musicians as some of the more well known acts do sometimes, the show can become quite predictable. Its nice to see a spark of unpredictability add to the show. The result was particularly effective on tracks like “Canvas”, “A-ha!”, and “Headlock”.
More interactive innovations were in store for us. Prior to the concert Imogen Heap had invited fans to vote for their favorite 12 song set list with the promise that each show would be one tailored to the tastes of that particular city in which she was visiting. Our pleasant surprise was only the second performance of “Clear the Area” on the whole U.S. Tour.
In the middle of the set, she took a break to create the charity song for that night’s gig. Each night Imogen Heap performs a completely improvised piece of music that is driven by audience suggestions about the key, the tempo and the time signature, that is recorded. It is something that is not only difficult to do but the sort of risk that I can’t imagine most artists wanting to take. There are so many things that can go wrong with that sort of effort. Each of the songs is finished and polished at a later date and made available for sale. Each sale is contributed to a charity from that region. Ecotrust was the lucky organization chosen to receive the funds from Portland, Oregon.
The concert was also a treat in light of revelations made in an article by The Guardian that Imogen Heap, with all of these wonderful qualities and single-minded devotion to her craft and fans, is not immune to the pressures of the recent recession, and the general malaise of the whole music industry. It seems that the tours are barely breaking even, and that the later leg in Europe may even leave her ledger in the red by some 20,000 pounds. Heap has even intimated that even though her album Ellipse debuted at #5 on the U.S. Billboard charts when it debuted, that sales were far below what a tour of this magnitude requires. I hope this awakens some out there who constantly make the same refrain that album sales and monetary value for the recorded songs and albums doesn’t matter because artists will be able to, or should make the difference up on touring and merchandising receipts.
The reality is that for many acts who are only able book and draw venues with a capacity of 5,000 or fewer fans, the economics just don’t pan out. I’m not sure what needs to be done, but increasingly some of the most interesting and creative acts are just throwing up their hands and giving up on the effort to tour at all! I hope this can be reversed. It would be a cold, boring world if only mega branded acts could afford to perform for audiences live.
Regardless of how the problem is solved, the Imogen Heap concert was magical, and coming from someone who has performed in and witnessed many shows during his lifetime, that is not just lip service. Imogen Heap’s greatest strength is that she is able to put unconventional instruments and methods together to create something wholly original.
The Set list:
1 The Walk
3 Come Here Boy
4 Wait It Out
5 First Train Home
6 Little Bird
7 The Fire/Canvas/Half Life (canvas)
8 Breathe In
9 Charity Improvisation Song
11 Let Go
12 Just For Now
13 Goodnight and Go
15 Clear the Area
17 The Moment I Said It
18 Hide and Seek