The last time I saw Nell she had tumbling blonde curls, a majestic mane, her crown and glory, you could say. Tonight I saw Nell with no hair at all. Both pictures are equally beautiful. As has been well documented in the press, Nell developed alopecia quite recently. I have to say, the Nell that stood on the stage tonight was perhaps the most real and heartfelt I’ve ever seen her. Strangely, she managed to be vulnerable and invincible at the same time. It sounds like a cliché but by losing her hair it’s as though she found a vital part of herself, her real, true, honest to the bones self. Not that Bryden has ever been anything but an authentic performer but it was a delight to see somebody so comfortable in their own skin, with no pretensions and no games on the agenda. Truly for her - there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide and she embraced that so fully it was hugely inspirational. A message for all of us, it’s safe to be yourself….for how and who else can you truly ever be?
I first came across Nell around 6 years ago when she dropped by the Blue Cat Café touring her first record. Straight away it was clear how serious she was about her music, how in love with her guitar and her vocation she was. Vocation may sound like a funny word but this woman does give the impression she’s been called by some ancestral, deep rooted need to use her beautiful voice to wash away the aches of human existence, to turn it around into something magical and exciting. On one of those nights, I remember Nell asking me for a whiskey before she went on stage – or was it when she came off? Transatlantic confusion can occur where whiskey is concerned and I can’t remember which tipple we settled on but I do remember thinking the way she drank one measure of unadulterated whiskey somehow matched her straight-talking, direct approach to life. Again, no fuss, no fillers, no frills – just the real thing. Perhaps that simile also applies to her magnificent voice. Like whiskey, it can be smooth, matured and seamless – or, it can be rousingly raw and penetrating, making you cough as you swallow – hitting you right THERE ... again!
So, tonight, Nell is promoting her new album Shake The Tree but the set list constantly dips in and out of her expanding back catalogue, delivering a perfect pace of variable tempo and pitch. One of the things that really stood out for me tonight was the power of her poetry. A musical talent she undoubtedly is but she’s been doubly gifted as a priestess of the pen. The shockingly knock-out chorus of Fingerprints demonstrates this “Your fingerprints are still on my heart” – what an evocative metaphor for having your heart stolen and squeezed! Many of the songs are punctuated by Nell’s banter. Full of wit and anecdote, she’s very in tune with her audience who unnerve her a little by being too quiet. I agree we were, but I think it’s because we were so enthralled by her songbook. This is the last night of her tour and she admits she can’t wait to get back to New York having been on the road for months. Going home, missing home, losing people and places and also returning to them, are a common theme in her music. She slips through dreams, oceans and echoes with a gracefulness that glides you along beside her. And that’s the thing, you really do travel with her, through the chilly, nocturnal streets of Brooklyn, the parched paths of the Middle East, the dust, despair, even danger that sticks to the soles of her shoes, we can trace those patterns she paints with each inhalation.
The show closes with the Shake The Tree, preceded by Nell’s motivational invitation to everyone to go shake their own tree. As she says, you can wait for the fruit to fall and see and accept what you falls in your lap (if anything) – or you can shake that tree, reach for your soul’s desire. In other words, it’s about following your dream, making it happen, making it matter, and making it mean something. Nell Bryden at the Ruby Lounge meant something. Something beautiful, precious and ALIVE! As delicate as a quivering raindrop on of a petal on the rose, but as blooming and beautiful as a whole rose garden. Wake up and smell the sweet perfume!