Joan Wasser carries with her a certain amount of baggage. A musically gifted woman in her own right, the events of the evening of May 29, 1997 could have completely engulfed her in loss, doomed to go on in the grim shadow of a talented man that left this world too soon. The mysterious, near mythical, almost tragi-comedic events of that night, and how Jeff Buckley drowned, fully clothed, singing a Led Zeppelin song about sex, resonate throughout her music but they do not anchor it down into nothingness. Wasser is an example of how the grief caused by unexpected, unexplainable accidents can be positively channelled into something good. She has been able to make darkness into light.
The entity that arose from the ashes of sadness is Joan as Policewoman. In the same way that Blondie ostensibly IS Debbie Harry, Joan as Policewoman, on the face of it, is the alter ego of Joan Wasser. However, also just like Blondie, Joan as Policewoman is not a person but a collective of interconnected working parts with Wasser as its face. In a music world that does not easily forget, is unforgiving to the wives and girlfriends of famous musicians and is critical of even the most sincere of emotions, Wasser has been able to successfully present herself as an artist and an individual, carving out a place for her violin toting intensity that is devoid of the spectre of the unprovoked tragedy in her past.
The low ceilinged, flashily renovated basement of a former church is perhaps the perfect environment for this glamorous, charismatic woman. The most immediately jarring aspect of this live performance, or rather the reaction to it, is how quiet, appreciative and reverential this audience is in the more sombre moments of the night; this is one of the most respectful Glasgow crowds I have ever been amongst. It says a lot about the emotional impact of your music that, at these points in the show, the cricket like chattering of the crowd hushes into a silence that awaits the touching sermon of the powerful presence in the centre of the stage. The aforementioned direct channelling of the grieving process into making music cannot be ignored as contributing to the sensitivity in these moments.
Although these vignettes are affecting, we only really get Joan. It is when we get …as Policewoman, the remaining members of her band, that the show livens up. Wasser may be a multi-instrumentalist, but she can’t do everything. Only with the support of a talented rhythm section and a guitarist unafraid of making a bit of noise is Wasser able to let loose on her strings with an elegant wave of her bow and the soft tones of her voice. She may have a penchant for low lit torch songs, but actually the more genre defying improvisational jazz affectations of a clearly diverse taste in music hold the most exciting key to the night. Especially the new songs from recent fifth record The Classic, such as the poppy ‘Witness’ or the krautrock outro of ‘Good Together’, showcase her more eccentric of musical personas. When she puts on these many masks – standing behind the mic with nothing in her hands but the air she grabs through her erratic dancing, sitting behind an organ, or screeching out unheard notes on her violin – rather than sticks to the impressive but obvious down tempo songs she’s perhaps most comfortable with, the show comes a little more alive and dangerous. There may be a tinge of sadness still left over in her voice, but it has mainly been replaced by a confident soul, demonstrated most on ‘Get Direct’.
As the band left and returned for an ecstatic encore to a crowd that deserved it, the most unrepresentative, quirky and delightful tune was the highlight. Wasser and her band members left the protective shield of their instruments behind to stand centre stage, in order of height to sing the scatty doo wop of ‘The Classic’. It was fun, simple and memorable; the most incidental crowd pleaser you could imagine.
The rest of Joan as Policewoman then vacated the stage to leave Wasser alone, now a more vulnerable figure, to close the show poignantly. I think to myself that this is fitting. While her bandmates fill out the sound, ultimately Joan as Policewoman is about her and how she has overcome death through creativity. While some of her more obvious stabs at mainstream appeal on The Classic may be at times unconvincing, they inject her show with just enough energy so that when it is time to shut up and listen, everyone actually does.