Just hours before Daniel Andrews’ “I’m not angry, I‘m just very disappointed” reintroduction of a state of emergency to manage Covid-19 transmission, new venue Small Time played host to one of the few shows that could run safely. Inspired by Seattle’s radio station-arts community centre KEXP, Small Time had the fortune to open in early March with a focus on live streaming and recording emerging artists, with the venue section of the operation seeing bands play behind soundproof glass to punters seated at tables or on couches. All of which makes for an extremely relaxed space that, with limited ticket sales, makes social distancing a breeze. It is almost as if the venue’s operators knew, in 2019, that streaming and physical distancing would be exactly what the arts industry would be needing in 2020.
While Nat Vazer has been a fixture on the live scene for several years, her profile has grown from gig opener to supporting Lime Cordiale on their recent tour. May saw the release of her debut album, Is This Offensive and Loud? which earned praise from NME and any music critic who wrote about it, the vinyl selling out its pressing in one week. It’s fair to say expectations are high and the gig feels like one you’re lucky to catch.
Vazer opens the show with a Welcome to Country and her band, guitarist Andrew Campbell, bassist Benjamin Joel and drummer Sean Newell lock in instantly. After months of live shows being something streamed or watched on video, this is a strangely transitional state. More like watching a live-to-air performance, there are no amplifiers or foldback wedges, the band wears headphones, and the sound comes through two mid-sized PA speakers set high in the corners of the room. It’s not hard to imagine that the audience is, like those watching the live-stream of the performance, watching a screen. Unable to hear our applause, but able to see the enthusiasm, the soundproof glass is more than just a physical barrier. We can see Vazer’s precise guitar playing and emotionally powerful delivery, Campbell’s tight-jeaned, bent-kneed rock moves and the dynamic rhythm section of Joel and Newell, but, unlike last year’s incendiary show in the sweltering heat of Nighthawks, it’s more a performance observed than felt.
Tonight, songs that established Vazer as one to watch, such as her 2018 singles Struggletown and the chilling insight into anxiety Keep Away From Parks, are dwarfed by those from her album. Even a rousing cover of Alabama Shakes’ Hold On is overshadowed by newer releases such as the latest single Higher Places, shimmering centrepiece Better Now, and community radio staple, Like Demi. The balance of Newell’s rhythmic proficiency, Joel’s deft bass melodies, Campbell’s imaginative arpeggios and lead guitar lines, the power of Vazer’s voice and the prescience of her songs’ themes combine in a way that feels honed without being too studied. There is a tension in a show that wastes no energy in delivering songs that feel urgent. When Vazer delivers her songs, there is no sense of desperation or fear that the audience won’t understand. It’s the marker of an extremely good songwriter.
The world is not short of gifted singer-songwriters and it’s hard to stand out from the brace of new talent that has the fortune or resources to rise to the top of a Release Radar Spotify playlist or onto radio rotation. But these are songs that have the ingenuity to grow on repeated listens, and Vazer has the band to sell them, even with a restrained performance that seems like it was being cut for a live album.
The show closes with recent single Grateful, which gives each member the chance to loosen up while hewing to a late-period Beatles-esque pop motif. It’s another song that shows Vazer doing what she does best, seducing the ear with a melodic rock song, while only later, with the song circling in your mind, do the lyrics reveal its prickly inspiration. We might have to wait for another small-scale show like this, but if it’s as half as impressive as tonight’s show, it will be worth it.