The rare presentation of unparalleled conviction and determined peculiarity can almost certainly enlighten an audience to the motive and thrust of compelling songwriting.
Honing a wholly original and mystifying stage demeanor, New Zealand’s innovative folk pioneer Hannah Sian Topp, who’s commonly known to music listeners as Aldous Harding, delivered a riveting and alluring performance recently at The Miracle Theater in the nation’s capital, solidifying herself — if she hadn’t already — as one of today’s most stunning and extraordinary performers.
Touring in support of the new album, titled Warm Chris and released in March via 4AD, Harding mystified a sold-out audience on June 11 with a set pulled largely from her most recent studio offering.
Cloaked in a black kimono dress with black slacks underneath it, her hair pulled back sleek and tight into a long tail, Harding’s every expression and movement was purposeful, and her eyes were glaring as she conducted the performance with a timeless mastery.
The night began with a trifecta of songs from her new album in what has become an anticipated standard on this tour, as audience members at The Miracle Theater were mingling before the show with excitement about what the set would bring.
Stream Aldous Harding’s newest album, Warm Chris, via Spotify:
“Ennui,” a sprightly, probing piece that opens up the newest album, provided a runway for both the avant-garde instrumentation in this newest batch of songs, but of course Aldous’ luscious and doting pitch that has come to define this catalogue stretching back to the 2014 self-titled album.
She led the group in the resounding hum to advance the opening track, and by the time her words met the meshed march of piano and drums, it felt impossible to not be pulled into the ride of each song or to become enamored by the undeniable metaphysical realm cast from the sound — cinematic and transportive.
By this early in the night, all onlookers were no doubt already enchanted, perhaps even perplexed, by Harding’s inexplicably artful physical display of gestures, like sporadic upper-body ballet or an improvised response to each and every note of the song.
And regardless, the effect was fulfilled on the audience: flashing looks that ranged from euphoric to standoffish, she’d lean over herself in seemingly awkward but intentional fashion; she’d cock her head back, turn it to the side, whisper a few words that only she could hear, then cast a ghastly look into the corners and relax momentarily before returning to her uncommon groove that abstractly illustrated each song throughout the night.
Aldous would pick up the acoustic guitar for the evening’s second number, “Tick Tock,” a polished groove that showed her ability to change tones in sequence as well as her fine picking skills. All the while, she continued to move in unorthodox, freakish ways to highlight the rich twists and turns of this track.
Backed by a group that was acute and perceptive in amplifying not just the volume and texture of these unusual compositions, but their character as well, Harding’s supporting cast was superb and dynamic as a team — true professionals in barely cracking a smile to show only the least bit of approval in one another after each track was executed to what sounded to most ticketholders at The Miracle Theater as perfection.
And Harding would make any silence that much more tense as she’d stare in a new direction, even deeper. Together, this posse of multi-instrumentalists demonstrated the range of sound and mood of the newest Aldous Harding album — an intoxicating, provocative haul that includes brass, banjos and more.
To bring it to life in DC, the outfit included H. Hawkline, an accomplished singer-songwriter and outstanding guitar player, who opened the night with a solo set (backed by a reel-to-reel tape machine), as well as organist and keyboardist Mali Llywelyn; drummer, percussionist, and brass blower Gwion Llewelyn; and Harry Bohay, who rotated through an arsenal of instruments, including bass, electric guitar, and additional keys.
“Fever,” an elegant jaunt with a bouncing hook in its verses, turned into a complex and fanciful jam with Harding making the first use of the tambourine and Gwion pulling up a flugelhorn to cap the tune with a sophisticated closure.
Watch the official music video for Aldous Harding’s 2022 single “Fever” via the artist’s YouTube channel:
Sitting back down in her seat, Harding popped a Coca-Cola, took a big swig and with that, she plucked the delicate, harrowing beginning to “Treasure,” a standout from the 2019 album Designer.
Her voice and her hovering guitar were underscored by hauntingly beautiful keys from Mali, who herself was a radiating presence stageside left, as well as overall heightened group vocals as H. and Harry shared a mic in the back and the electric bass and guitar grabbed a larger share of the sound.
Those group vocals stood out again for “Fixture Picture,” another favorite from Designer that was presented in dreamy form at The Miracle Theater, featuring a fetching march as well as a brilliant synthesizer segment, another credit to Mali and her sense of timing and space.
As the night went on, and the musicians on the stage revealed themselves to be of otherworldly talents, Aldous’ class and spirit shined brighter — even when she wasn’t staring through the soul of an unsuspecting audience member, she would use her visage to seemingly call on her bandmates to own their moments, and each did with precision.
Harding and her crew steered back into the new album with “Lawn,” a sinfully groovy and captivating piece showcasing Aldous’ vocals at perhaps their most enticing and allowing H. Hawkline to fit a cutting electric motif into a rhythm that wanted to go on forever. As it did, Aldous slapped the tambourine off her hip and the seated audience howled and whooped as she went, her hair flinging in seemingly designed patterns.
Watch the official music video for Aldous Harding’s 2022 single, “Lawn,” via the artist’s YouTube channel:
Presenting more from the newest work, the title track sharpened the focus on the discernible sound in Aldous’ acoustic guitar — almost toy-like, with a plastic sound from the strings — and it brought with it a youthful innocence at this particular frequency and especially so in the bizarre tone of the song’s chorus: “Oh, Crystal / I got the love for you now / Crystal / Not that you need it, eh girl / Crystal.”
“Thank you,” Harding finally said plainly but earnestly, her first words of the night clearly directed to the audience. But her focus aggressively diverted back to the music, and the minimalistic, mesmerizing “Staring at the Henry Moore” was followed by an impassioned take on “Passion Babe,” with her voice riding a distinguishably ardent tone that maybe only she can find.
In a departure from her stoic character, Aldous seemed to poke fun at her own body language as she grabbed a swat of soda and set the can back down. “Transformers — more than meets the eye,” she playfully warbled the words to the famous franchise’s classic cartoon theme song.
It was as loose as the audience would see her, and it paved way for the unforgettable versions of two of her most adored songs — performed back-to-back — that have helped her build one of the most formidable songbooks of any young folk maven: “The Barrell” from 2019’s Designer and “Imagining My Man” from 2017’s Party.
These popular, dazzling pieces manifested so as to confirm the proficiency of the band, and each showed Harding thriving in the murkiness born out of such pensive territory. Her breathtaking articulation turned almost to a shriek in belting some of the most striking verses to “Imagining My Man,” and her mates, particularly Gwion with a high pitch and Mali with a soft croon, each injected their own voice to create the interspersed, choral “HEY!” chant that defines this unique creation.
Serving up another batch from the new album, Harding’s glance appeared to be returning to something off the stage, close to the wall. Meanwhile, three additional new songs helped build the case that Warm Chris, though fresh, has the vibration and emotion to stand it apart from her previous works.
Stream Aldous Harding’s 2019 album, Designer, via Spotify:
Returning to the stage and performing a darkly tempting and imaginatively modish take on “Blend” from Party, Harding looked in that same direction to her right several times before making her way over to the piano.
Then she took a breath, and she spoke to the audience: “Normally, I wouldn’t make a Transformers joke,” she said, sitting snuggly next to Mali.
And she let those who couldn’t see it themselves in on what had eventually caught her attention down low on the floor.
“There is also a dog here,” and she looked in the direction of the wide-eyed pit bull terrier — a hard-working service dog — who’d spent the whole set listening and was particularly keen on Gwion’s activity within the drumkit.
“Things are different tonight,” Harding pointed out, prompting some giggles, and even if it wasn’t that funny to her, it somehow made the night that much more intriguing. “I don’t know how I’ve done a whole show with it.”
Ending the night with one of the most departing songs from Warm Chris, Aldous led the piano and Hawkline picked the banjo for “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” a piece that much like the recorded version, teetered on unsettling or toiled in a state of questioning, with keys over strings in an eerie, arresting step-for-step cadence.
The daughter of folk singer, Harding, or Topp to those close to her, clearly has an innate ability to write magnificent songs, as proven by each of her studio albums. But she’s also to be exalted for the stylish manner in which she can enthrall an entire room of people, and leave them wanting more.
Staring at the Henry Moore
Imagining My Man
She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain (encore)
Here are images of Aldous Harding, as well as the night’s opening act, H. Hawkline, performing at The Miracle Theater in DC on June 11, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.
And the aforementioned service dog …