Lisa Hannigan has everything going for her – a golden voice, uncanny ability as an interpreter of songs, deep reserves of charm and easy, classy style. The one thing she could use is a better songwriting partner than current collaborator Aaron Dessner.
She is a wonderful performer and a literate, sensitive interpreter who can make mediocre songs good and good ones great, and with better material she would shine even more brightly. Her early work was catchy and could be beautiful, but it was too often lightweight, throwaway. Latest album At Swim lacks variety and in aiming for depth only achieves a derivative dullness.
I was greatly looking forward to hearing Hannigan sing after her five year hiatus from making albums and touring. Though listening to At Swim in the weeks leading up to the show had felt a bit like a chore, the minute Hannigan crept on stage I was transfixed again.
She came on alone and half-shy, began picking on a nylon string guitar and launched into two or three songs, mostly from second album Passenger, with a manic focus, throwing herself out at us, her eyes fixed and staring at the back wall, her body jerking and swaying with the effort of expression, her voice thick with emotion. It was an amazing performance, an audience-stilling exhibition of raw honesty.
For her early solo material Hannigan used the remnants of the band she was already in – Damien Rice's. That band was disintegrating anyway in the wake of her being sacked and it was an excellent outfit that had contributed enormously to Rice's initial blistering success.
She obviously learned a lesson or two about picking musicians and drilling them - Hannigan showed here that she has become a masterful band leader. For her all-male band she has picked three young players who sound like their background is more jazz than pop. The drummer, keys player and bass player were versatile, technically gifted and play brilliantly as a unit. But what made their sound so perfect are the tight arrangements, the taut precision of every unison note or syncopated cross-rhythm. This doesn't just happen, it is a sign that Hannigan is well aware how to convert the dull studio wizardry of At Swim into thrilling acoustic adventure. Though some of the songs still drag and sag, most from her new album are much improved here.
Another new development is the deft expertise of her own instrumental playing. Gone are the days when she strummed along or picked out odd notes. She is sure-fingered and eloquent on guitar, mandolin and ukulele, all the while singing complex lines with perfect intonation and heartbreakingly musical phrasing.
As a music critic in Dublin I watched Hannigan emerge as part of that superb Rice band. I have seen her command the main stage of music festivals and heard her sing unamplified in a room with six other people, and I'm not sure I have heard many better singers. She hits each note exactly where she wants to, which isn’t always dead centre. Her tone is as hauntingly beautiful as it is unique, and her control and technique are masterful.
But sometimes she falters, and this might explain why she has made less of an impact than she could have. Tonight she misses out some strong material, including her only claim to anything like a hit, I Don't Know, which a loyal audience surely craved. The set is short and her diverting chat is almost entirely absent. It's a fine show but someone of her talent should be able to send every crowd home thinking they've just seen the gig of the year.
It reminded me of a moment from her emergence as a solo act in 2009. She played Oran Mor that year too, holding the audience spellbound, combining immense personal charm with a display of controlled anguish and whimsical melancholy that left the Glasgow crowd besotted.
I had interviewed her earlier and arranged for a film crew to shoot her and the band playing two songs for the newspaper's website. She sang acoustically in the wood-panelled, couch-bedecked dressing room with her band for an audience of the small film crew and me and it was spellbindingly beautiful, one of the absolute highlights of my life in music.
Just a fortnight later she played breakthrough hit I Don’t Know on Jools Holland’s TV show, a huge coup - this is a show that makes careers. Jools Holland’s audience were her people, this was her time. I thought she would go over incredibly well on TV and make her name, and I remember sitting on the edge of the couch watching it, willing her to show the world what she had.
But she didn’t. She choked, seeming nervous and introverted, her sublime, deeply moving voice shaky and reedy, her charm evaporating under the heat of the TV lamps.
It felt then like there was some invisible rope holding her back from achieving what she could. It still feels like it. She has talked about having writer's block in the run up to At Swim and perhaps it is just a case of choosing a collaborator capable of better than Dessner's sub-Bon Iver mood music.
Hannigan is still a joy to watch and someone with an extraordinary ability to make a song come alive. It is reassuring that someone who ploughs their own furrow like her and has a distinctive, slightly odd style can still make a living in music. But Hannigan is not making the most of her considerable gifts and we should all hope she chooses a better songwriting partner next time.