As the house lights dimmed on the Spiegeltent stage, bare except for an iconic red Nord Stage 2 keyboard, I realised I was about to hear Katie Noonan perform live for the first time. Having long admired her work, I am grateful that my first experience was on the opening night of the Adelaide Fringe Festival, an event whose existence this year I do not take for granted. From the moment she first stepped on stage, her unique brand of effortless charm and sincere love of performing was self-evident before she even opened her mouth (to sing - Noonan might just be the Queen of pre/mid-song patter). What followed was a ubiquitously impressive and endearingly, imperfectly human performance.
Noonan's setlist spanned her illustrious and prolific 25+ year career and showcased absolute mastery of every facet of music-making. I often think that one marker of truly great song is whether it has the structural and musical integrity to withstand the transition to a stripped-back, acoustic version. I would have absolutely no trouble believing that every song she performed was written specifically for that red Nord Stage 2 keyboard, replete with 'vibe' setting and tasty tremolo fluctuations. Her songs meander but never ramble, sometimes feeling almost through-composed before returning to sections I am only too happy to hear again. Her harmonic palette is exquisite, using sudden modulations and substitutions that only make sense because of how she approaches them melodically, but that are sometimes so exciting because of how she doesn't. Some of the changes seriously took my breath away.
Perhaps Noonan's most distinctive and praiseworthy asset, though, is that voice. The way she seamlessly flicks up into that ethereal, otherworldly register is a masterclass in vocal control every single time. Some of these moments elicited involuntary groans (the good kind) and applause from an extremely loyal and appreciative audience. I sometimes wish she had stayed up in that vocal quality all night, oscillating around dissonances with the Nord or just holding unreasonably high pianissimo notes for so long it felt like the ground was about to open up, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing.
With such an intimate and vulnerable on-stage setup, though, this technical and musical mastery is all for naught if the performer can't hold a room. Noonan's banter was exactly the right blend of self-deprecation and humour, heartfelt personal insight and genuine audience interaction that made everyone feel as though she'd invited us there personally. In all my years watching live performances, this is the quality that is the most rare, the hardest to imitate. It is also the quality that Katie Noonan exudes without a hint of pretence. My personal highlight of the night was a request that she had apparently not played for 13 years and was clearly not expecting to perform when the show began. To see a world-class musician of Katie Noonan's calibre navigate the process of frantically searching her muscle memory for the right chords, wanting to give the fan who requested it the best possible experience, was a more humanising and humbling moment than any in recent memory.
After a year being starved of live performances, Katie Noonan's hour on stage was exactly the balm this audience needed, both musicians and non-musicians alike. More performers could stand to take a leaf out of her utterly unpretentious book.
Katie Noonan performed live for one show only in the Spiegeltent at the Adelaide Fringe Festival on Friday 19 February, 2021.