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Jessie Buckley is having a busy 2022. The Irish actress has been nominated for an Oscar, has won an Olivier Award for her West End turn as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, is starring in a terrifying-looking horror film with Rory Kinnear (see review opposite), and has teamed up with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler to release a folk album. It’s only May. The mind boggles at what the 32-year-old’s diary looks like for the rest of the year.
On Sunday night, Buckley and Butler played their first ever concert, in a vegetarian café-cum-music venue in Camden with a capacity of just 55 people. On paper, they’re an incongruous pair: the rising Hollywood star and the reluctant progenitor of Britpop, now 52, who left Suede at the height of their fame and has since become a successful producer, working on albums including Duffy’s Grammy-winning Rockferry.
Buckley admitted from the stage that the “bananas” pairing was “a beautiful mistake”. “I met Bernard up a mountain in Kerry. That’s how I pick up all my men,” she joked. The mountainside meeting was actually via FaceTime, but the story is true: a mutual friend sensed musical chemistry and arranged for them to talk (this was a couple of years ago). Buckley didn’t know who Butler was “but I thought he had really great hair”. They clicked (due in part to Butler’s Irish roots), they met, they wrote songs. The results are quietly stunning: these are accomplished and nuanced folk songs, with Butler dialling down his occasionally lavish playing to let Buckley’s voice enchant, tell stories and – sometimes – let rip.
The tempo-shifting opening track Babylon Days was exhilarating. Over Butler’s Bert Jansch-like guitar, Buckley sang what sounded like a lockdown lament, her delivery by turns urgent and tender. There were flavours of Laura Marling in her delivery. The song was given extra depth by Misha Mullov-Abbado on double bass and Joseph O’Keefe on violin. The title track of the album, For All Our Days That Tear The Heart, was slower and denser, with Buckley hitting an extraordinary run of high notes at the end.
This was a decidedly low-key affair, with Buckley in jeans and trainers. But she had a rare wattage to her, a presence and an effortlessness of delivery, that could be utterly disarming. With her hands in her pockets, her eyes closed and her head tilted back, she became lost in the songs. And yet her beaming smile when she wasn’t singing was addictive. “This is so f-----g fun! It was a bit scary at the beginning,” she said, adding that the whole venture is “mind-blowingly thrilling”.
Many people would argue that actors should stay in their lanes, that those who venture into music are somehow straying into territory that isn’t theirs. But anyone who has seen Buckley’s country music film Wild Rose knows that she can sing. It would be a crime to waste such talent – this is more than just a vanity project.
Butler’s playing was complex but never overwhelmed. It was also brilliantly versatile. Beautiful Regret had a touch of the duets of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris to it. He largely let Buckley do the talking, and she was right about this hair – think Robert Peston with his finger in an electricity socket. During the last song Catch The Dust, Butler created a guitar loop then moved across the stage to play a harmonium. It was lovely.
Neither Buckley nor Butler needs to do this project – it’s not as though they’re twiddling their thumbs. This curious collaboration stemmed from the joy of music. This concert was less a star is born and more two stars colliding – with mesmerising results.
Buckley and Butler play the Lafayette in London on June 17; myticket.co.uk