KT Tunstall
at Manchester Academy 3,
Manchester, England
(3 March 2005)

It seems that you can't turn on a television or read a magazine these days without the initials KT staring you in the face. Following an appearance on Jools Holland's Later show, "Scottish sensation" KT Tunstall has meteorically risen from the depths of obscurity to become one of the most talked about acts of 2005 so far.

This has not exactly filled me with anticipation; I have been let down in the past too many times with the lackluster efforts of the supposed "Next Big Thing" to lower my guard. Hence, I'm always wary of efforts to pander to the 30-plus market of those who want to show the diversity of their taste in contemporary music by their interest in different genres: Norah Jones (pop), Jamie Cullum (jazz) and the Doves (rock) are three examples that spring to mind -- acts whose sheer dullness and lack of creative spark is meant to equate to maturity.

Although I did like KT's critically lauded debut album Eye to the Telescope upon first listening, it struck me as the type of music you might put on for a meal with your family or tap your foot to if it came on the radio. It didn't seem to demand too much attention, though. So, when I joined the slightly intoxicated Manchester audience of roughly 500, my expectations were not particularly high. However, I was in for a few surprises over the course of the evening.

The first surprise came in the form of 17-year-old support act Ben Earl. If he was at all nervous it did not show in his performance. He opened with "Simon Says," a song about the importance of freedom of thought in society. The song's closure met with a brief stunned silence and then rapturous applause. For the remainder of the set, in which the solo performer switched from acoustic guitar to piano, he never once lost the crowd. He has a fantastic voice to complement some of the best lyrics I've ever heard, and he surely has a bright future ahead of him.

This was a hard act to follow but the crowd was not disappointed. Thirty minutes later Tunstall was on stage, tuning up the guitar that would not leave her hands for the duration of the concert. She established a light tone immediately: "Got a new set of strings," she gushed, "just 'cause you're so special" (yuk). I felt a little sick for a moment, wondering how many times she's used that line -- then I heard her play.

I was impressed by how varied the songs sound stylistically when played live. The opener, "Another Place to Fall," was more of an outright rocker, as is the fantastic anthem "Miniature Disasters," which came second. In the latter the band attempted a slow clap, but it was short-lived. The next two of the set, the sublime "Other Side of the World" and "Under the Weather," are gentler, more pop-ballad gems.

These were followed by current single "Black Horse & the Cherry Tree," which has a ragged country and western feel. Its reception shows that it was what the audience has been waiting for. It was not one of my own preferred tracks but the irritatingly catchy "woo-hoos" will be in my head for the rest of the week anyway. Perhaps taking a leaf out of Radiohead's book, KT used an obscure gadget (its called an akai headrush, for what its worth) to sample her own voice and mix it into the live rendition of this song.

The next performance, "False Alarm," was executed with chilling precision and feeling, and was my favourite of the night. Its spacy oriental-sounding guitar melody and falsetto vocals made it reminiscent of Coldplay at their best. "Universe & U" was then introduced as the closest thing KT has written to a love song, and was dedicated to someone in the crowd -- her aunt apparently, not the drunk guy at the back declaring his undying love for KT throughout the set.

It was in the following two songs, "Stopping the Love" and "Suddenly I See," that it became apparent just how talented KT's band is. As well as the standard backing vocals, they worked their way through a variety of instruments. The bass player (Arnold) picked up a cello and Kenny the keyboardist comfortably switched to bongo-style drums and then traded these for a dustbin lid/tambourine combo! The drummer Luke stayed fixed behind the skins where he belongs -- aside from Metallica's Lars Ulrich, he is possibly the most impressive drummer I have seen live.

It is really quite misleading to think of KT as a solo performer as it is very much a band experience to see her live. For the last song the band was onstage ("Suddenly I See") they attempted another slow clap. This time it caught on, however, as the Manchester audience (who I've always found seem hard to win over) were now completely involved. The chemistry between band members was unreal and it was obvious that they were really enjoying themselves playing. Apparently the reason she began to play as a solo artist is because while she was still relatively unknown, venues would pay only for her and not the rest of the band.

Although the band was excellent, when KT came back on stage alone -- just one girl and her guitar -- it was clear that KT herself is a force to be reckoned with. She has a vast amount of stage presence (this is nothing to do with physique, as she is around 5 feet tall) and commands the stage like she owns the place. The encore she chose was the uplifting "Throw Me a Rope." Although not a track from the album, it was warmly received by the crowd.

All in all, it was a great evening and the only real criticism I can make is that at under 50 minutes (encore and all) the set was too short. I had been unsure about this concert beforehand but it ended up being the best gig I've been to in ages. So I guess if there's a point to my rambling it is, as in the case of Lipton ice tea and cannibalism, don't knock something until you've tried it.

KT Tunstall is a live act who not only lives up to the hype but exceeds it. It'll be interesting to see if she remains loyal to the more intimate venues, as it is hard to imagine her reproducing the same atmosphere in an arena. Her edgy style has been compared to musicians as varied as Janis Joplin and Dido (although Tunstall can hold a tune better than the former and lacks the sultry whininess of the latter). Perhaps in the future other artists will be compared to her.

- Rambles
written by Ben Latimer
published 9 April 2005

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