Maria Somerville’s on the edge of something big. The dreamy, soft-focus pop of her debut album is unlike anything else you’ll hear this year, and she’s picking up attention across Europe. So it’s not exactly a surprise that the Bello Bar is wedged this evening: it’s wall-to-wall hipster, the barman’s sweating and under pressure as the orders come in faster than he can serve, and there are local journos, scenesters and musicians bouncing from one side of the venue to the other to meet and greet.
The Bello Bar’s a small basement room, with a low-ceilinged area near the bar and another space for performers a couple of steps down from it. With the crowds here this evening, this means that things quickly turn into a game of sensory deprivation: it’s so packed that in the upper area, you can hear the music but not see the stage, and in the lower area you’re practically stepping on the band, but the sound is so bad you can’t hear what they’re playing.
In the Bello Bar battle of sound and vision, the support Yamme settles for sound, playing a lovely debut set of ambient tropicalia but looking a little lost down in the performance pit with just his Octatrack dynamic performance sampler. Somerville, on the other hand, has come armed for anything, and when she and her band step out shortly before 10, it’s into a space strewn with loopers and effects that they get straight to work with.
It looks like a pretty conventional band, with Somerville, a guitarist and a drummer, but the sound it makes is anything but conventional – all shimmering washes of sound. And though the crowd had earlier looked on the verge of gravitational collapse, as soon as she starts singing Eyes Don’t Say It, it’s rapt. Live, Somerville’s voice is as languid as it is on record, but it’s also clearer and more engaging, and all its reference points are good ones: Liz Harris, Hope Sandoval, even Bilinda Butcher. She’s also a poised and cool performer, which must come in handy when the audience is close enough to trigger her sampler for her.
But the problem is the sound. The earlier songs in the set are beguiling, but as soon as the band adds some low-end synth on All My People, the overwhelmed PA system sets the panelling and light fixtures of the venue rattling so loudly that her vocals are lost, and it sounds like Napalm Death playing dubstep. There’s a reprieve for This Way, but the rest of the set is a struggle between the sophistication of her soundworld and the crudity of the acoustics.
After 45 minutes she’s off, with no encore, and we’re left with a tantalising sense of an artist who’s already outgrowing the scene in which she developed. Maria Somerville’s ready for a bigger stage. Éanna Cunnane
Photos by Gemma Bovenizer