Our evening begins with touring support care of Canadian singer Jennifer Castle. Despite a contemporary sound on record, live and stripped-back these could be songs from any era, although perhaps most likely the early seventies. It’s a cold wet evening in Edinburgh, but we might be in a bohemian cafe in Greenwich Village. Castle’s delivery and country-folk-inflected guitar lulls us into her world, the songs frequently flowing into each other without pause. Audiences can get naturally chatty at the back when Sneaky Pete’s is full (tonight is a sold out show), but Castle effortlessly holds an already busy venue in an intimate hush.
Eleanor Friedberger seems more conscious of the cosy confines within which we and her band find ourselves, but reacts with amused good grace, her posture and swagger undiminished. Recent album Rebound returns to the synth colourings of her older records, but there are no keyboards present tonight, the songs stripped back to drums, bass, guitars and vocals. This isn’t a shortcoming; the softer eighties-styled edges of that record become sharper, looser rhythms become tighter, and the focus is squarely on Friedberger’s exceptional vocals and absorbing lyrics. The latter also helps highlight the strength of her writing, with songs from across a fifteen-year period sitting aside each other without any sounding out of place.
Although the tempo is invariably upbeat and danceable, there doesn’t seem to be too much movement in the audience, perhaps partly due to lack of space, but there is no lack of sonic impetus from an on-form band. Rebound gives us a surfeit of catchy pop chorus refrains, from the “I could love you more”s of Make Me A Song to the rapid, percussive “Are we good?”s of the song of that name, Friedberger adjusting the “How’s your Swedish?” lyric to “How’s your Welsh?” as she sings of snakes and croquet and dogs barking in the wrong language. The lazy beachside haze of It’s Hard gains heft live and Friedberger playfully feigns having forgotten a guitar line, mirroring the song’s lyrics.
2016’s New View is also well represented (a relief for me as I missed her touring it at the time). He Didn’t Mention His Mother somehow loses its exquisitely-brief core guitar line amidst pedal effects, but is nonetheless a welcome blast of guitar-pop perfection. We’re also treated to other highlights from across her catalogue, such as Other Boys, Stare At The Sun and My Mistakes, and an exultant Inn Of The Seventh Ray, with not a filler song in sight. As she sings in Other Boys, “How could any man resist/a girl with such a big setlist?”
Lyrically we’re led through a labyrinth of bio- and geographical references and clues, and the mythical, magical, funny and mundane moments of Friedberger’s life as mapped out across New York and other American cities, and more recently Greece. She introduces a solo rendition of The Fiery Furnaces’ Waiting For The Summer with an anecdote about cycling from Glasgow to Edinburgh on her 28th birthday, apologising that it’s not really relevant, but clearly singing a song from that era has some personal resonance for her, being back here in Scotland tonight. Despite essentially being a song about the weather, it’s an emotive, heart-stopping highlight, transformed here into a bare, plaintive ballad, Friedberger enunciating each repetition of “Remember” as though it were an accusatory plea to an ex-lover you nonetheless still hold affection for.
As Castle reminded us during her set, Friedberger is an icon; a formidable and individual writer and performer with an ever more impressive songbook, who should surely be playing far bigger venues. Nonetheless, at gig’s end she stands by the merch table in the narrow bar area to see everyone safely out into the damp, windy night. I hope she found some Highland Park whisky later on, to save her from the weather and remind her of home.