Kathryn Williams & Neill McColl, Donna Maciocia & Dave Brunton, Marit Bergman

Helen Newbery 25/03/2008

Opening tonight at the Cabaret Voltaire are two of the three members of Edinburgh-based Amplifico, Donna Maciocia and Dave Brunton. To begin with, it's just Maciocia's voice, piano and bongos: a combination which on paper really shouldn't work, but somehow, they manage to pull it off. Occasionally Maciocia dispenses with the accompaniment altogether, and it's just us and her rich, throaty voice. There's a surprising amount of variety in the songs: 'The Comedy Stops Here' has irresistible Latin rhythms, and 'Yeah You Could Be My Muse' is all lush guitars. Closer 'Fists at the Sky' lulls you into a false sense of security with its piano-led beats, and then unexpectedly takes flight into an almost ethereal swooping, although, as my other half points out, “it's all a bit Kate Bush, isn't it?”

The second act, Marit Bergman, is a Swedish singer-songwriter with seemingly very little to say. Her lyrics are frequently banal, as on her song about moving to New York: “I've got a party to go to, and no friends in this town”. And although her voice is pleasant enough, it's not sufficiently strong to maintain a half-hour set. And this is the main problem; there really isn't enough substance on offer here. Bergman's piano-led songs seem repetitive after half an hour, and strangely incidental, a little like the filler songs in a musical which are just padding out the script. She's clearly at home on the stage, however, as she entertains us between songs with comments about being huge in Sweden, and Kylie as the inspiration for her song about gay sex.

A glance at the merch stand before the gig reveals the prolific back catalogue of Kathryn Williams. However, tonight is all about her collaboration with Neill McColl, with most of the songs taken from their latest album, Two. It's a set of utter simplicity: two people, two voices, two guitars. And the two of them do seem to enjoy an unusually close rapport. They chat away on stage, interrupting each other like old lovers. Their voices, too, complement each other perfectly: William's is deliciously husky and breathy, with McColl's more spartan tones the perfect foil. They are showcased to gorgeous effect on the close harmonies of 'Innocent When You Dream' and set highlight 'Come With Me', with its tender lyrics: “taken by the tide way out to sea/past the friends that we used to be”. The songwriting is lyrically strong, inspired by nature, old stories, and dreams, and at times displays a synaesthete's sensibility: “I swallowed purple when you left me, threw orange into the sea…all along the grey was in me”. And if this all sounds too twee, there is the occasional unexpectedly filthy turn of phrase to jolt you alert again: “I'll sweeten you like sugar when the world has been fucking with you.”

Perhaps it is the ease with which the two of them play (somewhat surprisingly, Williams reveals during the course of the gig that she has struggled with stage fright for many years), or the rapport that they generate, both between each other, and with the audience, but the gig feels unusually intimate. Williams really does have the audience in the palm of her hand, commenting “that's the percussion” when someone knocks a load of bottles over. At times, the sound generated is deceptively complex, whereas at others it is equally deceptively simple. And I am sure that at one point I could hear the sound of the sea.

The closing song is an immaculate version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', and just at the end, Williams reveals the huge range of her voice, spitting out the final “Hallelujah” as the yawning howl of despair it was surely always intended to be. It also reveals what an amazing show this would have been if Williams had used the full range of her voice, rather than sticking to the breathier numbers showcased tonight.