Those lucky enough to attend Gemma Ray’s L.A. debut at the Hotel Cafe on Wednesday night (June 23) were witness to a breathtaking display of solo artistry. Armed with a vintage Hagstrom guitar outfitted with a Gretsch pickup (from which she managed to conjure all manner of sonic landscapes) and a kitchen knife (which she used as a sort of slide bar), Ray’s remarkably cinematic set was like a cross between Tarantino and Lynch — neo noir despair accented by playing that conjures the dark, deserted highways and byways of the mind.
Leaning heavily on her last two studio albums, last year’s “Lights Out Zoltar!” and the most recent (and more spare) “It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray” (Bronzerat Records), this native from Essex — not unlike Joni Mitchell and early Liz Phair — managed to weave compelling tales of introversion and heartbreak with intoxicating vocals and a unique guitar sound; in Ray’s case a viscous, metallic style that reminds one of Ry Cooder’s nuevo west atmosphere with a splash of Dick Dale.
In “Ghost on the Highway,” the line “oh I hate you and I love you / It’s all the same I guess” seems to illustrate the polarities d’amour as succinctly as any lyrics I’ve heard. Visiting the City of Angels for the first time, she was scheduled the next morning to meet with the Sparks for a possible collaboration, before winging it up to San Francisco for a solo gig the following week. Let’s hope she returns to L.A. to give us a proper show for more than a small coterie of industryites.