Dark, clever song-writing at the final concert of the Out to Lunch Festival 2010
'We don't have any happy songs,' Hannah Prater of The Bittersweets admits, leaning into the microphone. Her fringe falls over her eye and she smiles. 'Sometimes we speed the songs up, so if you want to have a happy night you just don't listen to the lyrics.'
Prater is a wisp of thing of stage, with long dirty fair hair and a placid, narrow face that lights up when she smiles. The daughter of two Californian music teachers she has a clear, perfectly controlled alto voice that slices through the dark, slightly muggy air in the Black Box. The gig sold out and the venue is packed, with a crowd standing three deep at the back of the room.
Originally a quintet The Bittersweets became a duo last year. It doesn't seem to have done them any harm. The combination of Chris Meyer's poignant, clever song-writing and Prater's astonishing voice is a powerful one. They complement each other. The chemistry between the two performers on stage is also very effective, anecdotes and asides serving to leaven the dark tones of the music.
They don't have any shortage of anecdotes either. As Meyer comments on stage, 'things happen wherever we go'.
A scruffily bearded man in a tweed vest and cowboy boots Meyer has a husky, mellow voice that is reminescent of an alternate universe Bukowski with milder habits.
He plays the keyboard like he's in pain and tells most of the stories, with Prater sliding in clever one-liners with a sloping smile.
Trapped in Detroit when their flight was 'indefinitely delayed, but not cancelled' they were rebooked by a woman who didn't know the system and had to go to Amsterdam and Heathrow before finally getting to Northern Ireland.
Another time at a gig in the midwest one of the audience turned out to be a holdover hippy who'd misconstrued some of their songs.
'He ran a website about the apocalypse,' Meyer says incredulously. 'He thought he'd found kindred souls.'
'He took something away from the performance,' Prater points out. 'That's the important thing.'
Prater was telling the truth about the paucity of 'happy songs' in The Bittersweets repertoire. Whether it's the cover of 'I am an Orphan Girl' (a song so self-consciously maudlin it is difficult not to slip into parody) or 'Rapture', a song about a woman hopelessly fleeing an ex-con boyfriend, the songs tend toward the morose end of the spectrum. However, the lyrics are rarely without some touch of hope that Prater's soaring vocals can draw to the surface.
The Bittersweets close the gig with the title track from their album, 'Goodnight'.
'The voices in my head say, "You're gonna be a rock and roll star, someday."'
Maybe not rock and roll, but The Bittersweets in their new incarnation are well on their way to becoming even bigger stars.