When I reviewed Goldfrapp’s first U.S. tour two years ago, I fell short of giving them a rave because I felt they needed to loosen up a little. “Calling their performance understated would be, well, an understatement,” I wittily declared. And damn if it ain’t like they heard me. Because two years later, Alison Goldfrapp is back with an album and a tour that has her loosening up all over the place. Or so you would think.
But at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, despite a marked increase in the number of hip shakes, throaty chuckles between songs, and even one memorable moment when she took the mic off its stand and actually strutted around and sang at the same time, Alison Goldfrapp still doesn’t, as one friend of mine astutely put it, “command the stage.” And this time, I can’t blame it on the material — where Felt Mountain was all smoky mood pieces that suited her restrained stage persona, the grinding, lascivious synth-pop of Black Cherry begs to be performed with campy, sexed-up abandon. Instead, however, Alison still comes on ice queen cool, behind a mask of golden face paint streaked down her cheeks like tears and her trademark WWII-style military cap. She looks great, sounds great, appears charmingly shy between songs — but she never really connects with the audience, or even with her band, who execute the songs flawlessly but look as though they’ve been instructed to do it with a minimum of fuss.
Despite all this, a Goldfrapp concert is hardly a waste of time. The more uptempo new songs, like “Train” and “Twist”, rumble along on a dense bed of synth drones and subterranean basslines that sound terrific in a live setting, and the supporting players, especially the astonishingly good violinist Davide Rossi, liven up the mostly straight-laced interpretations of the tracks with some great instrumental flourishes. And then there’s Alison’s voice, an incredible thing that swoops from sex-kitten purr to angel-of-mercy high notes with breathtathe ease. She’s one of those singers like Björk or Tori Amos who can reduce her greatest fans to tears; during “Utopia”, when she’s at her most operatic, I looked around the room and saw at least a few people standing arms outstretched and weeping like they were experiencing some kind of religious transformation.
Fans of Goldfrapp’s older material seemed to outnumber the newbies; at least there was surprisingly little dancing during the tracks off Black Cherry that have a definite groove to them. The song that got the room moving the most was “Tiptoe”, a great tune made even greater by drummer Rowan Oliver’s added syncopations and layered vocals from Alison, violinist Rossi and the band’s keyboardist, identified on their website only as Angie.
Angie took the place of the official second half of the Goldfrapp duo, Will Gregory, who never appeared onstage. His absence on the band’s U.S tour has led to rumors that Gregory and Goldfrapp are parting ways, but it seems more likely to me that he simply doesn’t enjoy performing and so took himself out of the lineup. On their last tour he was a charisma-less figure slouched over his keyboards like a librarian over a textbook, so his presence wasn’t really missed.
It struck me during this show that one possible explanation for Alison’s lack of stage presence is that she doesn’t really enjoy performing, either. She seems tense up there much of the time, an impression that was only enhanced when she began noisily whacking a cowbell during the climax of the set’s second number, “Human”. She appeared far more comfortable fiddling around on a few tracks with a gadget that appeared to be some kind of hand-held theremin; during the first encore, a raucous cover of Baccara’s Eurodisco hit “Yes Sir I Can Boogie”, she had her sexiest moment of the evening by brandishing the device in a decidedly phallic manner.
Alison also seemed to be engaged in a running battle with the sound people in the wings, frequently stepping back from the mic to wave at them in a series of elaborate hand gestures that would make a third base coach’s head spin. She even yelled at them in mid-verse during “Yes Sir”, telling them to fuck off, right before she picked up that pocket theremin and started thrusting it around like some kind of robot dildo. Anger seems to suit her; at least it seemed more heartfelt than the bland “you’re very kind, very kind” she offered as the band came back for an encore. Maybe Alison Goldfrapp is a closet punk; maybe what she really needs to loosen up on stage is permission to flip off her audience and kick over amps. Stories abound of her prima donna temperament and habit of berating audience members for everything from smoking to talking during the quieter numbers. I think I’d actually rather watch that than the reluctant diva she’s shown us so far.