Royal Albert Hall, London, July 2
There’s a pleasing irony to tonight’s proceedings. Regina Spektor is playing her first UK show to promote an album called ‘What We Saw From The Cheap Seats’ at the notoriously vertiginous Royal Albert Hall, and you can’t help but feel that a certain amount of squinting is probably required from the people watching the show from seats 135 feet above the stage. Especially when the anti-folk icon hides her sparkly stage frock behind her beloved baby grand piano.
Hearing her is less of a strain. Live, the Russian-born New Yorker sounds much the same as she does on record: sweet, swooping and plucky, like a baby sparrow exiting the nest. The one surprise is that her voice is mightier than expected. Much mightier. And on hearing the long, quivering note she hits during ‘Sailor Song’, it’s tempting to speculate on her rider’s secret ingredient: ginger tea? Acacia honey? An Axl Rose-endorsed oxygen canister? Whatever it is, it works, and she sings faultlessly for almost two hours.
But Regina being Regina, she doesn’t shirk the quirks. There’s white-chick beatboxing on ‘All The Rowboats’. ‘Oh Marcello’ features her best impression of an Italian accent, which sounds like an audition for Nancy Dell’Olio: The Musical. She even simulates the tooting of trumpets at the end of ‘The Party’. Think that sounds cutesy? Check out her excuse for fluffing the first verse of ‘Samson’: “I’m sorry, there was just so much love in the room…”
Her stage patter and vocal tics don’t distract from the music’s emotional richness though. A dramatic ballad called ‘Open’ is like a gothic novel in song, while the string-swathed ‘How’ sounds like ‘Unchained Melody’ left marinating in salty tears. ‘Laughing With’, a firm fan favourite from her 2009 album ‘Far’, is still startling enough to bring a packed concert hall to hushed silence.
Of course, she has quite the back catalogue to pick from these days. Tonight’s setlist mixes highlights from her new album with Spektor classics stretching all the way back to 2002’s ‘Samson’. In so doing, it highlights just how many terrific pop tunes she’s recorded: ‘Better’, ‘Fidelity’, ‘Dance Anthem Of The ’80s’, ‘Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’. A song like ‘Eet’ is so charmingly hummable, you’ll have heard it in the queue at Pret A Manger. But it’s also got enough personality that when Spektor sings it tonight, it doesn’t remind you of your last tuna bloomer. The result is a pleasingly meaty show from a performer who’s more robust than she looks. Cheap seats or not, no one will have left feeling short-changed.