By BRUCE DENNILL
Andra / Lagom Café, Lynwood, Pretoria
Singer-songwriter Andra is a unique composite of huge talent and varied influences, a mild-mannered folkie who can out-roar Janis Joplin and mix blues and flamenco guitar playing in the same song, should the mood take her.
On her own, she can sonically fill a big venue, but there is a limit to the detail she can add to arrangements of her songs and the interpretations of others’ work that she includes. At Pretoria’s Lagom Café, a dinner theatre venue that places the performers on a slightly raised stage and is large enough for the crowd to create real atmosphere when applauding by small enough to allow the show to feel intimate, Andra was flanked by a two-piece band. Brenda Burnit handles mandolin, various types of percussion, harmonica and backing vocals, while Tanja Franzsen plays keys, different types of percussion (including a floor tom) and adds more harmonies. And Andra herself, though generally focused on her vocals and acoustic guitar, also plays mandolin, ukulele, harmonica and electric guitar, completing a wide sonic palette.
Over the course of an unbroken two-hour set – endless touring has built up a formidable stamina in the singer; her voice never dips in terms of either tone or her ability to project – these many elements in the arrangements help to add interest to periods where the mood of consecutive songs overlaps a little heavily (if there is a weakness in Andra’s output, it’s that some compositions have very similar tones, and they’re generally quite serious pieces). Everything is immaculately played, though, and for the bulk of the set where the above quibble is irrelevant, unpacking – with your ears – what is happening on stage is pure pleasure.
An interesting feature of this longer set, if you’ve mostly seen Andra in festival or other multiple-artist set-ups where time is limited, is the way she presents cover versions, and the songs she chooses to rework. She and her collaborators do a version of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody that has infinitely more pathos than the original and which makes the most of a strong songwriting structure to present something completely different – and more powerful. There are also mash-ups, where an instrumental intro will suggest one well-know hit, only for Andra’s vocals to smash expectations when she comes in. Chris Isaac’s Wicked Game merges with Belinda Carlile’s Heaven Is A Place On Earth; Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walking becomes Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love (and Andra’s voice can handle Robert Plant’s range with seemingly no effort); and an encore combining proto-rock influences and Eighties movie soundtracks sees Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up and That’s Alright Mama alternate with Little Richard’s Tutti-Frutti and Kenny Loggins’ Footloose.
It’s all done with such off-hand ease that the imagination required to hear and then execute such inventive interpretation probably goes largely unappreciated. But alongside the craft of all of Andra’s original work and the anthemic authority of hits like The Signs, such additions to her repertoire simply increase the conviction that here is an artist and performer who can succeed on any stage she is given.