Thursday, Feb. 27, 8:35 p.m., Berlin’s Astra Kulturhaus. Billy Lockett’s soft, earnest vocals drift in a cloud of smoke out the open venue door, as I huddle in the entry area with my camera gear and notepad, waiting for young English nightingale Birdy to come onstage. I’ve just shot the opening act, and as I click through my photos, I realize I can barely remember anything about the songs.
I tweak the settings on my Nikon and prepare to focus, hoping that I’ll manage to absorb Birdy’s performance while glued to the images I’m capturing. It’s the challenge of live music coverage: You either experience a show as a fan – up close, emotionally engaged, open to catharsis as part of the crowd – or you experience it in a professional capacity, rushed, detached, focused on the work and then getting out, three songs no flash. How to unite the two? On rare occasions, an artist will give you free rein to wander around and shoot the whole show, but the standard model for concert photography creates a climate that is anything but conducive to really absorbing the atmosphere.
Security collects our little flock of photographers. We dash in, scrabble for placement. The songstress is seated behind a grand piano, blocking her face from the front, leaving about a three-foot zone in which to shoot. In the chasm below the stage, we play a frenzied game of Twister, contorting bodies and lenses to find a workable angle. Snap. Snapsnapsnapsnap.
In and out. I check my camera gear with security and head back inside, pen and paper in hand. I let go of sight and just listen, wait for the music to move me.
It takes hold immediately. Birdy’s voice is honey over thunder. The level of soul for someone her age, the surety of the shuddering depths is enough to hold this crowd speechless, marvelling. A voice of extraordinary purity and clarity in the high ranges, but capable of such grit and rich texture. She finishes a song, last ivory note trembling into the darkness. As the Germans would say: Begeisterung. The crowd screams, then hushes again.
Birdy stands and picks up an acoustic guitar, begins to harmonize with her female backup vocalist. Her guitar playing is sparse, allowing luminous empty spaces for her voice to swell, shine, resonate. I wish I was back in front of the barricades, wielding my Nikon, and remember half-wistfully the many times as a fan of this band or that when, smug from my hard-won position on the barrier, I watched the three-song photographers scramble and depart, knowing I would capture the moments they would never see.
But then, in those days, I would take 200 photos on my laughable little point-and-shoot and be delighted if 20 came out remotely decent and in focus. The images from tonight easily outstrip the best of anything I used to capture at a show. Trade-offs.
Fortunately, I can still hear perfectly. Birdy awakens a dimly primeval memory of another kind of singing, transcending the trappings of industry. If the venue and her record label, tour schedules and chart rankings, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter just fell away and ceased to exist, human beings would still gather around to wonder at a voice as exquisite as hers. It sounds self-evident, but it’s not, considering the smoke and mirrors, the gimmickry and fan service that surround some young artists. Birdy is simply absorbed in her instruments, not interacting all that much with her fans from the stage, somewhat bashful when she does address the audience – but none of that matters. She is utterly given, utterly lost in the music, and so are we.
I’m feeling love for her backing band—though she can hold the crowd captivated with just her voice and her piano, these musicians have serious heart and skill. Jamming it out, they deliver a sick guitar breakdown on “Terrible Love” (covering The National), and I let go just a little more.
She segues into “All About You” and it’s calm, grounded, yet excitingly alive and funky, building off understated percussion and bass to compellingly ground this soulful track. Birdy’s presence reminds subtly of Florence Welch, yet is entirely her own and different. This waif in a glittering skirt, drowning in a cascade of flyaway hair, she manages to fill the air with absolute sovereignty, without physically filling the stage in the way that some larger-than-life performers do.
Back at the piano, she plays the first five notes of “People Help the People” and the hall collectively goes “awwww,” then laughs at itself. You can’t blame them – Birdy’s vocal harmonies with her backup singer soar into the realm of the wrenchingly sublime and stay there through “Wings” and the ensuing encore. If Birdy’s trajectory thus far is any indicator, she won’t be descending to earth any time soon.
Her latest album, Fire Within, has not yet been released in the States, but is scheduled to drop in 2014.