Haunting and haunted, New Zealand export and 4AD resident Aldous Harding finally returned to Portland.
Polaris Hall, Portland, OR
(Photo: Peter Hutchins)
Haunting and haunted, New Zealand export and 4AD resident Aldous Harding finally returned to Portland after beguiling audiences at Pickathon a few years ago. Harding abruptly canceled her tour last year, but came to Polaris Hall in support of new album, Designer, sporting a new band and new show. In fact, only one track from her prior record, Party, graced the 11-song setlist.
In front of a sold-out audience, Harding spent the first set previewing Designer, from the salsa-inflected single “The Barrel” to the downbeat ballad “Heaven is Empty.” When she first took the stage wearing a dark T-shirt and white slacks that rode high above her waist, Harding looked as if she was channeling a spirit. Kicking off with her new title track, Harding shook a maraca as she licked her gums, as if trying to rid herself of a bad taste, and fixed an intense stare on audience members as if daring them to look away first.
Though she was backed by a four-piece band, Harding spent the majority of the show either picking her acoustic guitar or hunching over a keyboard, long hair cascading over her face. She said little, cracking a joke only when she opened a Red Bull and commenting that she forgets just how awful they taste. Some tech problems marred sections of the set and Harding became visibly frustrated at times but it wasn’t enough to shake her out of the performance.
Harding is able to do mysterious things with her voice, shifting from the high-pitched chorus of “Zoo Eyes” to the throaty drawl of “Heaven is Empty.” Designer is mainly a quiet affair and Harding attacked these new songs with gentle intensity. Even if her lyrics may have taken a step back this time around (check out the aforementioned “Zoo Eyes”) Harding continues to impress as a live act, transforming songs that can sound middling on record into totally different beasts on stage.
Asking an audience to sit through a set of new songs is a big request, especially if the record hasn’t come out yet. Harding withheld her old material until the final song before the encore, playing a gorgeous version of “Blend.” Fans hoping for “Imagining My Man” and “Horizon” were completely out of luck. Yet the performance was so good Harding could have been playing obscure ‘50s covers and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Speaking of covers, Harding kicked off the encore with a version of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line” turning the song into something ghostly and beautiful. Harding finished the set with “The Peel,” a new song not included on Designer. Keeping time with her mug, Harding delivered the most muscular song of the evening, perhaps portending more rocking music to come. After a brisk 70 minutes, Harding and her band left the stage. It would have been great to hear more material from Party but Harding seems to be the type of artist who chases her muse. It will be interesting to see where it takes her.