By BRUCE DENNILL
Andra Cilliers made her National Arts Festival debut at St Aidan’s, a magnificent de-commissioned (you could tell because there was a bar set up in the corner) church set up as a music venue for the duration of the event, on Tuesday 9 July.
The place is an inspired choice for relatively intimate shows, its high wooden ceilings making for sublime acoustics and its architectural splendour giving each artist a canvas on which to create a memorable production.
Andra is a shy person, not given to frivolous banter, and it’s just her and a scarf-adorned mic stand in the middle of the stage in terms of her “rig”, but her big dreadnought guitar and bigger, soul-lifting voice are more than enough to fill the room.
Aware that as a first-timer in Grahamstown, her audience may have no idea regarding her original material, Andra included a trio of interpretations in her set.
The first is a brittle, melancholic take on Save The Last Dance For Me, its usual pop sheen stripped away and its core – she explained that it was a love song written by a crippled man for his wife-to-be – exposed like a raw wound. The next (“We’re in a church, after all”) was a gritty version of John The Revelator, and the last is a tribute to an obvious influence on Andra, Janis Joplin – Mercedes Benz.
Keeping mostly still bar a few rhythmic movements and the occasional widening of her expressive eyes, Andra generates spectacular dynamics for a solo singer and guitarist – so much so that a man halfway back is moved to raise his hand, evangelic church style, during one particularly impressive passage.
It’s a big enough sound to cut effortlessly through the inane hubbub of a noisy club, but in the huge, vaulted silence of a church, it’s emotionally good.
Andra’s range over the course of her hour-long set is incredible. She switches from quiet folk to an epic Spanish ballad; from left-field pop to roaring, thrilling blues; and from gospel to bluegrass.
The shade of Janis Joplin is evident – Patti Smith is another possible touchpoint – as Andra buries herself in her art, creating her own unique, almost shamanic persona without anything feeling like it’s manufactured for effect.
Equally unaffected is the precision of her act. Her guitar does exactly what she expects it to, which is a tall order given the many genres she tackles. Indeed, Andra remains a shamefully underrated exponent of that instrument, which is only forgivable because her blockbuster vocals often thrust themselves into the limelight.
She’s not one to shout her own name from the rooftops – though if she did so from the St Aidan’s tower and projected, you’d hear her in Bathurst – but Andra live in this particular space is something very special.