‘a remarkably gifted talent’ - the Guardian
‘a majestic-voiced vocalist’ - Jazz UK
‘if (she) is not a star before long, I'll eat my cd player’ – the Sunday Times
With quotes like that on her poster, and a photo just as eyecatching, it’s no wonder the venue was heaving. At just 22, this starlet-in-the-making commands a vocal presence beyond her years, and people are clearly taking note. Miss Herbert is a multi-talented musician who earned her jazz credentials through hard graft (inhospitable pub gigs and all), and Oxford is just one date in a gruelling tour schedule including shows at leading jazz festivals across the UK and beyond.
The four-piece band consisted of upright piano and electric keyboard player Tom Cawley (with whom Gwyneth writes much of her material), double bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Simon Lee. The opening number, ‘Sorry’, featured just solo voice and arco bass, and made for a refreshingly gentle start to proceedings whilst giving us a clear idea of the singer’s talents. It proved to be unlike any of the other material we heard during the evening, which favoured the full band, and was more in the vein of good clean fun rather than wistful contemplation.
The band proved more than capable, with Cawley playing both sets of keys at once in one number (though if he could stop grimacing when he fluffs he would be doing himself a favour), and Lee playing the drums with impressive subtlety. Unfortunately, somehow the whole endeavour never got far beyond light easy listening, and after a few numbers it became hard to differentiate between them (such was the rather formulaic nature of the arranging). Still, this didn’t seem to bother the crowd much, and there were enough sustained high notes in the vocal to keep us smiling and raising eyebrows in admiration. Though thinner on the ground in the second half (for which we seemed to have to wait rather longer than usual), we were more enthusiastic, calling for not just one, but two encores.
Covers of ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and ‘Jolene’ enabled Gwyneth to pay homage to her inspirations, yet somehow the results were slightly insipid (‘Jolene’ ending up as heart-rending as a bag of crisps). Of the originals, ‘Monkey’ was a solid track, with funky bass on the electric keyboard and interesting lyrics (was she describing a pet, or her boyfriend?), but several of the other original tracks seemed to feature a character with a hunger in their eyes or soul, and I began to wonder if Gwyneth often needed a snack. Lines like “I want to share your toothbrush, I want to share your name” (‘Sorry’); ‘they made love under a raincloud and were married in the fall’ (‘Pick Your Wishes Up’) and ‘mini and me in the outside lane…where nobody knows my name’ (‘My Mini and Me’) were memorable for all the wrong reasons (dare I say the word ‘cheesy’?).
Oxford is a town rammed with jazz in various forms, and people expect a high level of both innovation and technical dexterity as a result. Gwyneth’s stage show is an intriguing mixture of highly professional musical and stage craft and charming informality: whilst she jigged about looking more like a Spice Girl than my idea of a sophisticated jazz songstress, she didn’t miss a single note. An overheard comment summed something up neatly: ‘she’s got a good voice – not really jazz though’. A lot in Gwyneth’s voice is soul, or country, as much as it is jazz. In addition, she’s versatile, but something’s absent. It’s a little like hearing Eva Cassidy, yet where Eva’s soul was in her voice, Gwyneth’s is hiding somewhere. Somewhere in the lyrics, somewhere in her charmingly gawky stage act – but never fully expressed in her singing. Still, as she admits, she’s used to – ahem – somewhat older audiences, and gleefully declares that she’s pleased not to be worrying about heart attacks tonight. Perhaps the thought behind the construction of these perfectly pretty, inoffensive tunes is that too much soul might dangerously overstimulate such aged crowds. Or perhaps not.
All in all, I was expecting a bit more than I got from Miss Herbert. Whilst I’m glad I haven’t placed any bets involving consuming electrical equipment, I also wouldn’t place any money at all on her not being a star already.