A chunk of the audience who attended Aldous Harding’s highly anticipated performance at the Art School seemed to have done an eeny meeny miney mo between the gig and the live-TV Eurovision happening that evening. That meant high expectations: stimulated by Harding’s spookily hilarious music videos for her new songs The Barrel and Fixture Picture from her new album Designer, people were ready for some El Topo-style visual extravaganza, funky costumes (the ribbon-adorned sun hat, the outsized cylindrical hat, any old hat) and other treats. During the performance, someone next to me started pushing towards the exit and I caught him grumble “Terrible”.
Harding doesn’t fulfil expectations; she is sure to circumvent them with an unapologetic let-the-dice-roll attitude. She sneaks onto the stage with her tongue out like some kind of troll puppy, wearing a matte Matrix-inspired cloak on top of a flounced Matador outfit. But those who were hoping for circus banter must’ve felt alienated: despite her eyeball-popping Doctor Caligari stare and well-placed shenanigans, Harding keeps a surprisingly low profile and at times chokes every guffaw.
Admittedly, she is a master of the grotesque: slouching on her chair in a spoofed country singer pose, she baas at the mic, does a slow-mo belly dance, shakes the maracas with a furrowed brow and bares her teeth like the witch Baba Yaga. When she coos Zoo Eyes, she does the best on-stage constipation face I have ever seen. Her band, less comfortable with these waves of theatricality, often seem like in a choreographed trance of reverence, with their eyes lowered and only occasionally cracking up when, for example, Harding shakes her head in apparent disbelief at the guitarist’s skills.
Still, there is a bizarre but sincere devotion in her performance, which gives the somewhat hazy, elevator music-style composition of some Designer songs a more three-dimensional feel. Treasure and Elation both wiped everybody’s grins off their faces with their unexpected fragility and Harding’s crisp acoustic rendition – her face is still a Joan of Arc farce, but the songs grip you by the guts. ‘Damn it Hanny/ When you jump up and down/The chains almost sound like a tambourine’ Harding (whose real name is Hannah) sings on Damn and looks like you should give her hug. Her voice seems like straight out of the original Brothers Grimm’s stories: a proper siren’s voice, very beautiful but goddamn disturbing.
Her communication with the audience is minimal – sometimes annoyingly so – but even when she’s busy re-tuning her guitar, you can’t catch her off-guard: as some reedy baritone blurts out a provocative comment and bursts out laughing, Harding replies without blinking: ”My dad laughs like that.”