Rachael Sage, with Jess Gardham & Rachel Taylor-Beales
at the Green Note,
London, England
(31 July 2008)

It was an evening framed by Rachael Sage, with a short set at the start and a slightly longer one, or the "secret set," as she termed it at the end. And whilst it might have been preferable just to have one long set, beginning and ending a night with Rachael Sage on the start of her UK summer tour was more than an acceptable alternative.

The first set she jokingly called her "greatest hits" set, explaining she'd play more songs from the new album later. "I know it's a short set," she said, "so I'm going to sing really fast now," and she began to play her piano very quickly indeed, before slowing down for a song from the new album, "My Word." However, most of the songs in that set indeed were older ones. She began the night with "Brave Dancing," which brings up the ubiquitous comparison with Tori Amos. It's true I can hear the Tori Amos comparisons quickly, probably because Sage is a free-spirited independent artist who plays piano. But Sage is different. For one thing, her lyrics, albeit personal, seem more for the audience than Amos's.

On her second number, "Trouble," I start to hear one of the other commonly made comparions: Ani Di Franco. Perhaps it's the way she implements talking as she sings, but she's really singing to the audience. Generally not as political as Di Franco, perhaps she is similar in terms of unconventionality, as she throws in a "Chop Sticks"-sounding riff of sorts towards the end of this song.

But Sage clearly is her own woman. She is able to laugh at her mistakes when she sings the wrong word on a new song. She notices her audience and talks with them, jokingly admonishing someone who yawns in the middle of "My Word," telling us that "that mouse" (from the song) is very active." When a fork goes flying nearby (food is being served), she ad libs and brings it into the lyrics. Sage is able to play to and with her audience simultaneously; she's always aware of our presence and never forgets that we're there for her and, most importantly, she's there for us.

Next up is Jess Gardham, who admits to being a dental nurse from Yorkshire during the day and a singer by night. There are folk and funk influences to Jess's music, and if comparisons are required with Sage, then I must admit to hearing a little bit of Tracy Chapman occasionally with Gardham. Her voice is insistent on "Knocking on Wood," her first number, but not overpowering. "New York Skyline" shows promise, but it seems as if she's trying just a tad too hard. However, on "Lead the Way," we don't need to imagine the gospel choir in the background as Gardham suggests. It's good just with her guitar and earnest vocals. This woman has potential. Both "Beyond Belief" and "Caught Out" are rhythmic, funky and catchy.

The other Rachel, Rachel Taylor-Beales (the one from Australia, as she introduces herself), is the only one who disappointed me at this gig. There were times when she was quite strong, as on "Find Me." One number she labelled a "rant" and made it clear she wasn't anti-male, but the song itself is a strong anthem for women. There were times when she would start singing, I would think she was off-key, but then the problem would fix itself. When her voice works with her, there's a Suzanne Vega-like quality to it. However, there were other times when her voice seemed weak and it wavered around notes a bit too much. It was disappointing because she seemed to have a lot to offer in terms of her confessional-style song writing.

After a brief break, Sage took the stage one last time for her "secret set," opening with "Wildflower" and featuring a strong piano, swinging her head up and down, indicating right away that she wasn't holding back anything. She joked even more with the audience this time around, reminding us how Jacob Lawson, accompanying her on violin, had only played these songs once before live. "Jacob, just be careful on the bridge," she warned, before starting "Sistersong." "It's only three chords," she informed him, then, as the song progressed, she'd break out of the song itself and state "four chords," "five chords" and so on. But Lawson kept up with her, and his violin helped create a dramatic opening on "Vertigo." However, she couldn't help herself from joking, changing the words ever so slightly for the laughs. "I shouldn't have done this; this is a serious song," she said, reproving herself as the audience laughed. She explained that the song really was about how "some asshole forgot to tell me he was married," and then proceeded to sing that line over and over. "That's my problem. If I would just simplify my lyrics, maybe I could get on the radio," she said with a laugh. I myself was wondering, as she played "Angel in my View," why I'm not hearing her on the radio. Is it because "Wishbone" is "a nice little lesbian song," as she calls it jokingly during her introduction? Indeed, commissioned for a commitment ceremony, she dedicates it to her boyfriend, and the audience roars. But the song quiets everyone down, as it is about love at its very essence, and Lawson's violin sounds right at home with it. And his violin, blending with her piano, makes the two instruments sound very orchestral on "Chandelier," the closing number.

That's one thing about Rachael Sage. Regardless of the type of song, regardless of its subject, regardless of its tempo, she's able to make each song personal during her live show. Sometimes it's her awareness of the audience; sometimes it's her facial expressions -- even just raising an eyebrow at the right moment. It didn't matter that, as she said, she was "a little stuffed up" and needed to "drift off to jetlag land'" Her opening night of this recent UK tour, announced and "secret set," was a hit with the audience.