The music of Beth Gibbons might stagger all over the map, but her vocals remain balanced on an emotional precipice. Pulsing with an otherworldly ache, her voice bruises like a fresh peach, a fleshy, juicy welt, a sob waiting just below the surface. She stands clutching the mikestand for dear life, her hands hiding her face, as if a false step could send her careening headfirst into bathos. But she maintains astounding control, adding touches of Dusty Springfield’s swagger, the steeliness of Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday’s vulnerability and Nico’s perversity.
The torch ballads on her collaboration with Paul Webb, “Out of Season,” (Systematic/Sanctuary) blossom onstage. The band — including Portishead’s Adrian Utley on guitar and Talk Talk’s Lee Harris on drums — revels in decay, swaddling the songs in layers of billowing, slowly fading sustain, drawing melodic and dynamic inspiration from Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, even the soundtrack to “The Wizard of Oz.” It gave the Avalon’s sound system a chance to strut its stuff, as the sound was lush but crystalline, the band’s deftly added details — the harmolodica on “Spider Monkey,” the soulful electric piano on “Tom the Model” — perfectly placed in the mix.
The set is also beautifully modulated, each song gaining strength and intensity until the emotional climax of “Funny Time of Year,” a persistent, slow-burning riff that sounds like Billie Holiday fronting Siouxsie and the Banshees. They return for a powerful cover of Lou Reed’s “Candy Says.” Gibbons gets under the song’s surface, replacing Reed’s dispassionate reporting with a vocal that reflects the titular character’s unsteady state of mind.
Alexi Murdoch opened the evening in an impressively moody fashion, singing his misty, mystical ballads in an insinuating voice combining John Martyn’s growl with Nick Drake’s delicacy.