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30th May 2024

Faye Webster live in Manchester: Artistic vulnerability in the face of the public eye

Atlanta singer-songwriter Faye Webster merged her innovative instrumentals with R&B and indie influences at an ambient gig at the Albert Hall
Faye Webster live in Manchester: Artistic vulnerability in the face of the public eye
Ailish O’Leary Austin @ The Mancunion

A week of sun in Manchester had been interrupted by torrential rain and a thunderstorm; admittedly not the most apt setting for Faye Webster’s gig at Albert Hall, her music often pinpointed for its wispy vocals and warm chord arrangements. Yet it seems her most recent album, Underdressed at the Symphony, marks a shift away from the candid indie lyricism that ignited her music’s TikTok virality.

As brief strikes of lightning illuminated the large stained-glass windows of Albert Hall, a dramatic orchestral symphony hushed the crowd and welcomed Faye Webster to the stage. There was no hesitation to commence the set, as the timid guitars of ‘But Not Kiss’ erupted into the plonking piano riffs. As the second song of Webster’s 2024 album, its lyrics are somewhat cryptic, contemplating the conflict of longing for an old love whilst fearing revisiting old wounds.

‘Wanna Quit All the Time’ and ‘Thinking About You’ followed, both notable tracks from the new album that replicate a similar vagueness in their lyrics. Underdressed at the Symphony has been widely labelled as a breakup album, a stark contrast to the romantic love songs that had been a staple of Webster’s previous work. Yet, as ‘Wanna Quit All the Time’ narrates, Faye Webster’s heightened fame has incited a need for privacy. As she elaborates, “It’s the attention that freaks me out.” Thus, it seems Underdressed at the Symphony sees Webster’s caution in sharing her every thought.

Ailish O’Leary Austin @ The Mancunion

Nevertheless, Faye Webster still dipped in and out of the love songs that soundtracked her earlier work, with the innocent vulnerability of ‘Right Side of My Neck’ and ‘I Know I’m Funny haha’ being sung in a united chorus by the crowd. Yet between the sensitivity of her music, Webster always returned to her composed and confident self on stage, swaying between her bandmates as she co-ordinated complex instrumental arrangements.

Webster’s band added richness to an already intricate soundscape, with Charles Garner’s eruptive drum solos and Annie Leeth’s jazz saxophone interludes. Matt Stoessel’s pedal steel guitar, however, was the driving force that bridged Webster’s old and new discography. The Hawaiian-born instrument provides rich swirling reverb, a trait that runs through a multitude of Webster’s albums and perfectly accompanies the wide array of guitars she uses. Between each song, her brother Jack would emerge from off stage, swapping one guitar for another, and another, and another. After a considerable number of appearances, Webster introduced him to the crowd. “This is my brother Jack. Everybody say, ‘Thank you, Jack’,” to which the crowd repeated loudly.

At the back of the stage stood a large inflatable faux stone statue, seemingly imitative of Faye Webster herself. As each song played out, the eyes of the statue illuminated a different colour, shining across the audience as though possessed.

Ailish O’Leary Austin @ The Mancunion

Webster’s experimentation with autotune also made a notable presence throughout the setlist. Her collaborative track ‘Lego Ring’, with a feature from Lil Yachty, sees the intertwining of delicate harmonies with robotic autotune. ‘Feeling Good Today’ followed suit, a song merging autotune and harmonies in a dissonant medley.  Webster stood alone onstage for this rendition, accompanied by her bassist and best friend. “This is my best friend Lulu,” Webster announced as she walked on stage, and the two sang harmoniously, smiling at one another throughout.

‘Jonny’ proved to be an audience favourite, showcasing additional smooth saxophone and jazz influences. The track blended into ‘Jonny Reprise’, a reflective poetic soliloquy that overlayed more saxophone. It was a moment of pause and reflection, as Webster detailed her contemplation of a failed relationship. ‘Lifetime’ demonstrated a similar reflection, the ballad piano track accompanying dim blue lights that spiralled across Albert Hall. The crowd stood transfixed on Webster in a moment of serenity.

Webster closed the gig with ‘Kingston’, her most well-known 2019 track that was met with word-for-word singing from the audience. She refrained from lingering after, giving a brief “Thank you,” and then promptly exiting the stage accompanied by abundant applause.

Starting with new and ending with old, the set felt like an encompassing journey through Faye Webster’s discography. Underdressed at the Symphony, whilst holding back lyrically in ways her other albums haven’t, leaves room for new instrumental exploration. In turn, Webster’s most recent tour was an opportunity for experimentation, evident with her attentive approach to her instrumental coordination, and making for a dynamic and clever performance.

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