Gig review – Charlotte Carpenter at Firebug, Friday 24th November 2023

Charlotte Carpenter. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

with Mouse Teeth

Reviewed by Phil Taylor (see his Music Observer blog here)

Charlotte Carpenter is a creator and an investor. She creates poetic, intense, beautifully dramatic music and words; and she invests fully, putting her whole self into that art. She’s also fully independent, and very proud of it.

Charlotte is originally from Northampton and has built strong connections in the music communities across the East Midlands, from Derby to Leicester. She has been writing and publishing music for many years, but only released her debut album, A Modern Rage, on 6 October 2023. Sometimes great things take time. And Charlotte has spent that time wisely, assembling a tight-knit band around her, and now taking that band out on an album launch tour.

Support for Charlotte at Firebug came from local artist Mouse Teeth (fka Nancy Dawkins). Describing herself as a singer-songwriter-poet-witch, she performed an intense and often hard-hitting set, veering from spoken word layered over ambient guitar roar, to gentle ballads, always with serious undertones.

She opened with a poem which expressed very effectively the understandable rage arising from being a woman in music (and previously “a child in music”, as she put it), standing rock solid and calmly projecting her biting and intensely revealing lyrics to the close-by audience.

Mouse Teeth. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

Her music was also well-written and performed with a rare honesty. Dream Girl stood out to me – the lyrics turned the concept of the “dream girl” around wonderfully. “I’m not manic enough to be your dream girl … I don’t want to make you better for the next girl, I want to make you worse”.

It would feel a little unfair or shallow to describe the set as “enjoyable”, although I did enjoy the sense of being challenged, made to think, made to reflect on privilege and equality. Mouse Teeth produces art, in a pure sense of the word – art isn’t always cosy and sparkling; its beauty can come from elsewhere. The sense here was one of purity of emotion.

Charlotte Carpenter. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

After Mouse Teeth had set the scene, Charlotte‘s set opened like her album: with the brooding guitar sounds of The Call. This is a reflective ballad written from the heart; a slow-burner which, on stage, allowed Charlotte to build ambience beautifully; freeing her to demonstrate her vocal skills as well as adding twangy electric guitar sounds; and gently easing us all into the rest of the set.

After that, we were treated to a sudden ramp up of energy into Fire, an older song released on an EP in 2016. I could see now how focused Charlotte becomes on stage – she’s serious about her art, gets into the zone, and takes great care to engage and give her audience her very best.

Charlotte explained to us how the next offering, Spinning Plates, represented her comeback to music after taking some time out. It’s a song which expresses the feeling of having too much to do, and not enough time to do it, as a woman in music in particular. “I need to find a way out, a way out …” is the claustrophobic opening. “I’m just trying to be a better sister, daughter, lover; I’m just trying to deal with all this pressure that I’m under,” Charlotte continues with urgency before the music and lyrics open up: “I can find a way out”. Like many of her songs, this one blends Americana influences with English alt-folk elements and themes which are very personal but will also resonate with others. It was executed very well by Charlotte and her band on the Firebug stage, particularly the dramatic slowing of tempo near the middle.

The central part of the set was rich, engaging and enjoyable, and a showcase for many of the best songs on the new album. Fine Line was driven by rollicking drums and featured an achingly-beautiful 6-note riff (played live on guitar rather than piano). Not Good Enough was the first outing for the double bass which until then had laid tantalising to the side of the stage (a double bass is always a mark of a band that means business). There was also steady acoustic guitar, a laid-back snare beat, and vocals which remained gentle but felt clear and penetrating all the same. The section of call and response between guitar and voice worked great, too.

Charlotte Carpenter. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

Playing solo, Charlotte performed the mellow Secret Second and then Bigger Than You, the last track from the album, before her band returned for a reflective rendition of Draw The Line: a moving song about ghosting someone, drawing the line under a relationship, and the mixed feelings that come with that. This is a great example of how this songwriter is able to express life stages and events so effectively through music. She uses melody and chords, as well as words, to do that – it’s an impressively holistic writing approach.

After that, we took another trip back in time for Babywoman (a song which featured in season 6 of the Netflix reality show Selling Sunset), another rocking-and-rolling number, no-nonsense and a bit of a crowd-pleaser: a mark of this artist’s versatility.

You’re My Reason Why was one of my personal reasons why I was so excited to see Charlotte perform live: it’s easily one of my favourite songs of this year, based around one of those gorgeous progressions which feels like it must have existed since before time began. It never ceases to amaze me just how talented my fellow human beings are; imperfect, struggling people are able to find and develop such piercing beauty as songs like this. You’re My Reason Why is a sublimely emotive, cathartic song, about “facing the end of the world with the person you love”; and the band performed it with beautiful judgement and pace.

Charlotte Carpenter. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

Next on the setlist was Dolores, another masterpiece of songwriting. Charlotte shared some insights as to how this song came about, and who exactly Dolores is: not an alter ego or someone from her past, but a character from Westworld, it turns out. It sounded great on stage. The main riff was brooding and almost ominous, and yet the song became one of triumph and strength, and Charlotte’s voice reached an ethereal zone as the song closed.

And then suddenly, at song number 12, we’d reached the end. Charlotte ended on a high note with the energetic-blues sounds of Like A Hurricane, a very effective expression of overwhelming feelings of anxiety. That intense pushing and pulling, that feels like it will take over and never stop, despite brief false moments of reassurance and calm.

We’d been told there would be no encore after this: I appreciated that honesty, and the avoidance of the pantomime of the ‘surprise’ return to the stage. Anyway, by this point we the audience had already been very generously rewarded in the transaction and skilfully served with a rich, intense, well-balanced set packed with messages and emotions. All in all, this was a treat of a show from an artist who seems to have found her calling: producing blissfully beautiful music while at the same time baring her heart and delivering a powerful, inspirational message.

Charlotte Carpenter has upcoming dates in Leeds, Winchester, London and Cheltenham before Christmas, and then visits Glasgow and Edinburgh in March 2024.

You can buy A Modern Rage digitally or as a double gatefold vinyl LP. Visit her website here or her Bandcamp page for more information.

Full setlist

The Call
Spinning Plates
Fine Line
Not Good Enough
Secret Second
Bigger Than You
Draw The Line
You’re My Reason Why
Like A Hurricane

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