LINDI ORTEGA: digging up the dead and riding high in Manchester

LINDI ORTEGA is trying to keep warm by switching on the kitchen hob as we arrive backstage at Manchester’s Deaf Institute to have a chat ahead of her headline show at the renowned venue.

She’s happy to be back, rightfully pointing out that the venues get bigger each time. Last seen at the smaller Soup Kitchen less than a year ago, she’s looking happy and confident with her progress. To her relief, mainstream UK press are finally taking note of the quirky writer-performer who moved from her hometown of Toronto to Nashville, only to appear within a short period of time on hit TV show Nashville and to start pumping out her new album Tin Star. Excited to talk about her recent venture to Mexico for a video shoot and her intense tour schedule, she looks fresh and ready to take on the Manchester crowds again.

It’s a busy Friday night as people of all ages pile into the venue. The atmosphere is buzzing as support Tom Hickox takes to the stage. More of a chillout rather than warm-up performance, Hickox is nevertheless solid and has a voice that will not leave you any time soon. Merch table collapsed by a drunk and rowdy group of girls mid-set, I inform the promoter that there’s nowhere for the bands to put merch as some guys come by to sort it out in the dark. Understanding that this is not a lineup to natter all the way through and suddenly aware of disapproving glares from die-hard Ortega fans, the culprits shut up and hang back in silence.

The venue is packing out and the crowd are itching for some Lindi as the sleepy set draws to a close. To yelps and whoops from the floor, Ortega enters with drummer Alex Cox and brilliant guitarist “Champagne James” Robertson, waving from her nose the stage smoke to: “Is someone smoking pot in here??” – and in one fell swoop she dispels any assumptions based on her red-booted twirly-haired cowgirl look that newcomers may have mistakenly made.

Opening with the new Hard As This, Ortega stuns us with her husky perfect-pitch soul sounds, and lyrics that swing from country melancholy to stinging targeted slurs and words of warning within a matter of seconds: “All my love is wasted on nothing but a heartache in my chest / You know how much I hate it, baby, you’re the one who does it bestIf you need to think, go read a book / Read about some thief stealing hearts like a crook / See yourself within the plot / Realize that you’ve got a lot to lose.

The general tone is already set: this girl’s got some hurt, and though she’ll make a point of laughing at herself and life, she ain’t gonna let the varmints off the hook easy – her trademark sledgehammer way with lyrics setting her apart from many modern-day musicians.

Following Waitin’ On My Luck To Change, she introduces the new album which she proudly describes as “inspired by all the music in Nashville.” Success for Nashville musicians is mostly about luck, she explains: “Some don’t get all the fame and glory… but they love what they do, and do what they love – I love music.” Another endearing quality to Ortega is the way she connects with her audience – she talks about her experiences without pretention and engages as if she were in a local bar, jamming with friends and fellow musicians, talking about life and its many twists and turns – she knows how to keep it real.

A beautiful rendition of Desperado is delightfully positioned in between tracks off the new and older albums. High is always a highlight, preceded by Ortega’s revelation that she has placed some ‘invisible weed’ into everyone’s pocket “to help you get into the mood of this song.” Someone reciprocates by offering her a jagerbomb which she politely refuses, afraid that her mouth will run away with her.

From the up-tempo to the downright creepy reflected in tracks such as Lived And Died Alone (“When the sun has set, I will go dig up the dead / Lift their bodies from their graves and I’ll lay them in my bed / To fill their hollow hearts with all of my broken parts and all the love that they were never shown.”), the setlist is as varied as it can get and hails Ortega as a force to be reckoned with.

Ending the set with the kicking Day You Die, she leaves us on a temporary high as she pitches her merch with “A free hug with every purchase!” and is soon back to close up with Johnny Cash tribute Ring Of Fire and other ditties including Little Lie. And lest we forget who the woman is behind the black veil, she leaves us with another classic Ortega-ism of advice: “It’s ok to lie to a schmuck.”