Marking the end of her BBC Performing Arts/EFDSS fellowship, Maz O’Connor has the perfect venue – in the shape of Cecil Sharp House – to showcase her year of researching, songwriting, collaborating and learning. And a full complement of guests are on hand to help out.
It’s clear that O’Connor has made good use of her fellowship – she’s certainly got stuck into the books, anyway. Her set, which comprises mostly new material, includes songs inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (“there’s not that much cholera”, she points out, disappointedly), Greek mythology (My Persephone, full of longing) and the creation story, a heartfelt alternative version of which comes in the form of Mississippi Woman.
It’s high-minded stuff (appropriately, for a room that currently houses a Danish giraffe for no obvious reason). But crucially, O’Connor’s songwriting is good enough to match the scale of her ambition. Derby Day, for example (see the video, below), revisits Epsom in 1913, when suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was struck by King George’s horse. The story is told from the perspective of a small boy attending the race – an unexpected move, but a masterstroke: it’s a humane and compelling song, smartly delivered.
Indeed, O’Connor’s delivery is consistently impressive. She’s a gentle guitarist, layering her songs with delicate arpeggios, and a fine singer, with a warm and versatile voice. And she keeps things mixed up with an impressive supporting cast. John Parker and Rowan Rheingans add funky bass and banjo respectively to a take on Little Birds, while Joe O’Connor (melodeon) and Matthew Jones (guitar) also help create a fuller sound when necessary. Later, Rheingans fires up the bansitar, which provides an excellently brash introduction to The Grey Selkie.
Elly Lucas, whose photographs currently adorn the venue’s walls (click here for our interview with Elly about that), also pops up, to add fiddle plucks and backing vocals to the “softly sleeping” song that introduces the second half of the set. And Jim Moray, the producer of O’Connor’s forthcoming album, also makes an appearance: taking to the piano for a tension-filled version of The Cruel Mother (one of many songs with “contemporary resonance”).
Impressive as her ensemble are, O’Connor seems content and confident as a solo perfomer. She cracks open the shruti box for a quietly devastating version of Awake Awake (from The Full English archive, she tells us), and moves to the piano herself for London Lights, an equally moving slice of melancholy.
It’s not all downbeat, though – a reworked version of The Bold Undaunted Youth, with a full band, is involved, resplendent and joyful, and there’s even some chirpy trumpet from Colin Danskin on the set’s closing track. “There’s a place for chirpy,” she says, though you sense she means in small doses.
There’s just time for a bittersweet suckerpunch of an encore: a strum through Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe. The crowd wants more, but it seems O’Connor is – for now – out of songs. Let’s be patient: her second album is out in a few weeks, but if she keeps working at this level, we’ve got a lengthy career’s worth of material to look forward to.