Last Chance to See

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November, a little after nine in the evening, and angry squalls of rain were lashing at the roof of the Union. It was a Cardiff redolent of Dylan Thomas, brooding in glistening blackness. It was a night made for the Debs.

Deep inside that stifling womb of a building, a single spotlight picked out the diminutive blonde at stagefront. The crowd was literally steaming. Our baying rose above the roar of the rain. She tossed her tresses, theatrically sullen and fretful, and her pout was frozen forever in a staccato blaze of strobe-light. In the same moment, a deluge of sound blew me and five hundred others away.

Nearly six years have passed since my first encounter with the best all-girl band the world has yet seen. Even back then they were consummate performers. They had begun to understand something of their power to shock, and the signature stage-antics were already gestating. On that memorable evening, though, it was Lottie's eerie charisma and Zanne's manic energy that captivated me. The hunched and half-lit figure standing almost in the wings was clearly an accomplished guitarist, but that was all.

Back at a mate's flat in the early hours, we enthused about the band. I mentioned the lead guitarist almost in passing. This had to be another case of a hired journeyman making up the numbers. The anonymity was so extreme, it was probably a bloke. My companion's mood suddenly became downbeat, hostile even. 'Wrong', he said, flatly. 'That's Grace'.

In the first days of their fame, she was just the quiet one. And then her graft began to be replaced by virtuosity, so that the truth was gradually revealed. The fascination of the Debs owes much to our guilt at her trauma, and to her harrowing brilliance.

She should be beautiful. Instead she is striking, with gaunt, heroin-babe looks and scarified complexion. The roadkill haircut is self-inflicted, of course. She tears at her scalp incessantly, whenever the guitar is out of her hands.

The drugs that ravage her tiny body are not recreational. Her mute detachment hides a perpetual inner turmoil, barely under control. She has learned to avoid the flashover of eye contact. But if you should ever earn that so-rare privilege, be prepared for her pain to crash into your soul.

For most of her waking life, inner demons hold her in thrall. Coiled and gnawing, they must never be allowed to worm their way out of her. Her vigilance leaves her drained and frozen.

Only the guitar can break the spell. Within its embrace, she takes flight. In one moment, she conjures an awesome hurricane of instrumental complexity. In the next, she is torn away in a heart-rending haze of anguish. The grimaces and tics are inconspicuous now, as she lurches between bondage and abandon. This is the closest she will ever come to rapture. For a little while, the terrible burden of our adulation falls away.

Lottie, of course, is the public face of the Debs. The in-your-face petulance is largely an act, but the restlessness is for real. Ambitious for her band and at the same time protective of it, she will lash out at the merest suggestion of exploitation of her erstwhile schoolmate's plight.

From the beginning, it was Lottie who cultivated the shift from fantasy-Amazons to the ambiguous female predators who unsettle fans of both sexes today. But no amount of image management can channel the enigma on guitar. On stage, the band's pent-up aura owes much to collective anxiety. Nothing ever comes out the same way twice. No-one can know where the fragile genius will transport them next.

The Debs are making a virtue of their Grace-inflicted unpredictability these days. Their current 'Act of Recklessness' tour tests our self-respect to new limits. The invitation to voyeurism has never before been so acute or so uncomfortable. The more doubtful it seems, the more it lures us. The more cruelly we leer, the more astonishing are the performances.

In the new set, they have chosen to play the now-iconic 'Don't Follow Her' in almost total darkness. Nobody who has witnessed it will forget it. At venue after venue, the hush during Grace's solo grows in poignancy. More than once, Lottie has choked on the final line. Be sure that her emotion is genuine.

'She writes her epitaph in life' indeed. There is a finality about the Debs, here and now. Respite of whatever kind is surely imminent. See them in the next few weeks, at the full flowering of their remarkable power. You may never get the chance again.

The Pinniped Portfolio


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