Years ago, when major record labels were signing acts based on longer term potential rather than on the back of a ready-made social media universe, there was a tradition of bands getting it together in the country. A rented cottage away from the big city, time to write songs and refine arrangements, bond, go to the pub, maybe take a few drugs: much, though not all, of which led to a productive process of artiste development. The art is not lost. In 2014, Liela Moss, vocalist with the seriously good rock band, The Duke Spirit, moved down to Somerset away from the clutches of big city life and started to work on material that might not automatically be a natural fit for the band.
The result was My Name is Safe in your Mouth, a solo debut following a temporary release from the ties that bind across five studio albums, spanning 15 years with The Duke Spirit. Tonight, Liela Moss was back in town to promote the album in the close confines of that congested staple of the London circuit, The Lexington. Cloaked in black over a long dark dress with flourishes of gold embroidery and tassels, Moss made a suitably dramatic entrance, flanked by a touring band of mixed gender comprising guitars, keys, violin, bass and drums. There is something of the primal earth goddess about how Liela Moss presents on stage. She is like a force of nature, a compelling figure whose spell is solidified the moment she starts to sing.
Conjuring elemental imagery against a sparse percussion and string driven backcloth, “Subequal” was a subtle opener which showcased Moss’ command of the vocal register as she incanted the verses. The mystic mood continued during “Manipura”, a meandering song evoking the power of meditation to bring about change. Moss displays a range of hand signals and postures that lend a theatrical feel to her set. Vocally, she can play the Scandinavian ice queen, her vowels over-pronounced in a guttural twang. Her low tones are understated, smoky and half-cracked, but she equally rises to bursts of soaring high notes.
“Memories and Faces” signalled one of the new album’s strongest melodies. Sparse with poignant piano and string twists, it gave real space to Liela Moss’ poetic leanings. Lyrically the juxtaposition of natural imagery and inner emotions cements a contemplative mood that persists throughout the evening. For such a powerful singer, it was interesting to see how Moss now brings a lighter touch to her art. Following “Salutation” and “Above You, Around You”, the denser soundscapes gave way to something closer to commerciality with “Wild as Fire, the debut album’s lead track nicely spaced in the middle of the set and boasting a strong 3-voice chorus. “Into the Flesh” saw an expressive vocal welded to chamber pop backing culminating in a lovely swelling coda.
While Liela Moss bossed the stage, her touring band admirably showed its mettle; Lucy Underhill wielding her guitar with economy and purpose, Katharine Mann aka Quinta adding spice on violin and the rhythm section of Moss’ partner and producer, Toby Butler (bass) and drummer Ian Kellett subtly enhancing the mood, never overpowering. Analogue synth drones and three-part harmonies all added to the theatre of the occasion too.
After two more album tracks, the lush, synth-driven “Moon” and “New Leaves”, it was time to dust off an older song. “The Dog is Black”, underpinned by an insistent bass riff was a more rounded version of an earlier collaboration by Liela Moss with UNKLE. “Hidden Sea”, the closing track on the album, brought the set to a pre-encore end, with Moss moving to piano to lay down imposing chords while Underhill added modulating guitar and a fitting harmony.
Having reprised her entire debut album tonight, it would have iced the cake to hear one of The Duke Spirit’s classic tracks reworked as a solo vehicle for Moss as an encore. The glorious “My Sunken Treasure” from Neptune or the broodingly tender “Homecoming” from Bruiser would have glove-fitted the bill. Fair enough, we did get “Influence & Atlas”, so disappointment a little assuaged. That said, tonight, Liela Moss singly ruled and her version of Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Today” to close her first ever solo gig provided the perfect send-off, with military drums underscoring the intense atmosphere of the song.
Photography by Ruth Geraghty