Karima Francis at GoGo Festival June 2011. Image courtesy of Lorraine Finn

The intimate environment of J3 at The Junction, Cambridge, played host to the distinctive and charismatic Karima Francis on Tuesday 11th October.  Filing in and taking a seat in the front row, just inches from the microphone, I felt I could be on a panal of hard-nosed music impresarios, set to audition somebody.  The venue is small and the seating capacity is less than fifty.  The dimly lit, close surroundings are simple and the edges of the room fade into a darkness that anything might be occupying.  It feels like a space of possibilities.  Anything could happen when a performer steps out here.  They could elevate us to unexpected heights or be crashingly mediocre.  Anything is possible for the new and relatively small acts that would play a venue with an experimental, new talent vibe such as J3 possesses.

Whilst we are waiting, not paying particular attention to the filling tracks, a lone, haunted voice cries out and immediately inspires emotion, although no words are recognisable.  Francis is warming up.  The voice dies away and is replaced by footsteps, a rustle in the curtains and then the unmistakable silhouette of the singer, guitar nonchalantly flung across her back, emerges briefly, only to exit straight through a door to the side of the stage.  I do not think anyone has even noticed this understated appearance of the person they’ve paid to see.

Karima Francis is due on at 9pm and in the meantime a young, slightly nervous girl walks timidly onto the stage.  With a guitar and a terribly sweet smile Ellie Caddick entertains us with a folksy, romantic, breathy performance that is not entirely unlike Dido in execution.  Her vocal performance is beautiful and her expression and body language whilst performing is engaging and very pretty to watch.  A lack of banter or discussion between songs makes everything feel a little disjointed but the songs are a treat.  Caddick jumps into the realms of impossibly cute when she describes the pained ‘Embers’ as a song about ‘a play that we studied in french last year’.  Despite a naivety that is a little too real and a timidity that seems to hold her back a little, this is a very enjoyable performance.  It will be incredibly interesting to see more of Caddick as time goes by.  It is easy to feel that she is just a broken heart and a life experience or two away from being a great and very emotive performer.

In contrast 23 year old Karima Francis strides out with the casual, though not at all arrogant, air of one who is completely comfortable in their own skin.  She addresses us all in a broad and jocular northern accent, immediately laying bare with pride her northern roots – mentioning both Northern England and North Africa.  Constantly apologising for a cold that did not in any way diminish her performance and professing a belief that we – who are all entranced through every second of every song – are not enjoying ourselves.  I have a feeling this was an older crowd than the singer is used to and the lack of response from us may have given the impression that we were not adoring every minute – which everyone seemed to be from my perspective.

Performing a mix of material from her debut album The Author and her forthcoming album, every song is shot through with that signature emotion and angst that grips your insides and squeezes.  Francis has the ability to embue every word with it’s own narrative, making each syllable a vital part of the story with her rapid rising and falling, soft and loud, breathy and booming voice.  Watching her deliver the hi energy, hi emotion Tonight you know she really means it.  Remedy is both uplifting and pleading, needing, plaintive and heartfelt.  As she pours Good, bad and ugly over us, it spreads into all those dark corners of J3 in a lilting, soft, broken, painful, tear-stained wave of sound.  The artist transmits emotion with her voice, her body, her language, appearing truly invested in the song, living every bar of it.  It is not just her voice that she uses to create the sound, playing guitar throughout, she carresses the strings in such a gentle, almost caring way that it seems obvious that such tenderness would produce such beautiful sounds.

Coming back out for an encore that seems to bewilder her – “I didn’t think you liked me” – Karima Francis finished her emotional roller coaster of a set with an invitation to meet her by the door and buy a stick of rock.  And I did.  It was a perfect finish to a perfect evening of music.

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