Gig Review: Holly Humberstone at The Level

Words: Phil Taylor
Photos: Jack Kimber
Sunday 08 October 2023
reading time: min, words

Holly Humberstone returns to her Midlands roots to play a stripped-back acoustic show in honour of her latest album Paint My Bedroom Black...

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This really did feel like a homecoming gig for Holly Humberstone; performing in Nottingham meant she was on familiar territory once again, having grown up “just down the road” in Grantham.

An hour-long wait did nothing to dampen the spirits of the crowd; the stage was lit in red, creating a warm, cocoon-like atmosphere; and when Holly finally ran on, the welcome was predictably rapturous.

This show was billed as an intimate album launch: I was wondering how intimate it could be given the size of the venue, but the warmth and genuine happiness of Holly’s greeting, echoed back at her by the mass of fans, created a sense of closeness quickly. And she maintained - in fact built - that sense over the next hour.

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Holly started her set with the unreleased Paint My Bedroom Black, her new album’s title track, bringing an instant, attentive hush to the room. This was of course an acoustic guitar-based version of what seems to be (based on social media teasers) quite an upbeat, electronic-infused song, but, as with the others she played, it was presented as more of a re-imagining than a basic, stripped-back version. Like Holly doing a cover of a Holly Humberstone song. It felt very well-planned and extremely well-executed. Despite Holly’s admission of feeling a bit scared of performing (almost) alone at centre-stage, having got quite used to having a band around her, she seemed relaxed and at home, and always well in control.

She pushed through an impressive array of tracks, switching deftly between new and old: Into Your Room was turned into a solid, properly-grounded, guitar-based ballad; The Walls Are Way Too Thin became a mellow showcase for some very strong vocals, accompanied by finger-picked electric guitar; later, with the guitar set aside, Falling Asleep At The Wheel was slowed down and reflective, and also provided one of the best singalong moments; and Flatlining, another brand new and previously-unheard song from the album, was transformed from what Holly said is “a dancey, weird kind of thing” into a gorgeous ballad.

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Holly’s interludes were typically charming, and became longer and more open as the evening continued. It was great to hear her sharing some deeper insights into the motivations and background behind her music. Holly mentioned how songwriting is her equivalent of journaling, before performing Cocoon, which begins with the pleasingly intriguing line “Are you free tonight, to watch the O.C.?” and moves to a repeated chorus line of “I’m just going through something.” Later, she spoke about how being on tour was an emotional rollercoaster and sensory overload, which would come to an abrupt end when she went back to her hotel room. This inspired her new song Ghost Me, which is all about hoping friends back home don’t forget about her. It also references singing Angels by Robbie Willams after a gig at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms.

Being almost alone on stage, singing with fewer layers of support, seemed to inspire Holly’s vocals - her transitions from low to high notes were confident and spot on, and she frequently injected impressive power into the peaks of the songs. This revealed elements to the music I’d never fully noticed before. Her voice sounded subtly husky, taking on a pleasing tone which sometimes called to mind a singer exploring Americana than an alt-pop star, particularly when she reached for the higher notes in songs like Antichrist. You can hear something of that on her latest single, Kissing In Swimming Pools (which Holly described as one of her favourites to write).

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Holly often ends her sets with Scarlett: she did play it, second to last, and it was wonderful, deep and passionate, the rapid-fire lyrical section delivered effortlessly. But it was Room Service that rounded off this set - a more intimate, enfolding song, well chosen for the setting.

This was definitely a crowd-pleasing, captivating and moving performance. But it was much more than that - Holly used the show as a chance to let another side to her musicality come out: a deeper, more mature side, revealing a developing confidence. With her new album about to be revealed to the world, that confidence is sure to grow even further.

Holly Humberstone performed at The Level on 3 October 2023. Paint my Bedroom Black is set for release on the 13 October 2023.

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