Katie Melua at Powderham Castle

I’ve liked Katie Melua for years. Something clicked the first time I heard ‘Closest Thing to Crazy’, and it’s never gone away. When my dear friends Lil and Tom invited me to see her at a picnic-style concert at a Devon castle, it was a no-brainer. What could be more pleasant?

The weather reports were iffy all the previous week, and even on Saturday it was 50/50 for rain. But Sunday proved to be glorious, leading into an almost cloudless evening as we arrived at a field near the castle with ~2000 other people. We had a blanket and finger food, but were a minority: most had deckchairs and elaborate picnic baskets of cutlery, cheese and wine. One group even had a stand to hold their wine glasses. Not that we cared – we were happy to indulge in pringles, salad, candy floss and pictures of beaver-sticks (don’t ask).

We were mid-way from the stage, but pretty much in line with the enormous speakers. I resisted the merchandise tent, except I didn’t. Three plectrums for £2 is ridiculous, but I couldn’t help myself. Anyhoo.

We relaxed into the evening as the shadows lengthened, and presently the support act made an understated appearance. He was, um, stoned. There’s no other word. Either that or he didn’t know how to pronounce his own surname. But good nonetheless, with some folksy ballads to start things off.

Support actI don’t think of Ms. Melua as a powerful singer – her songs are delicately jazzy, for the most part – but she walked on stage, sat down at the piano, and blasted out Call Off the Search. She completely filled the speakers, and you couldn’t help but sit up and take notice. It took me by surprise, but made me happy (my average tastes in singers run to the more bombastic end of the spectrum). It also set a precedent for the evening’s songs: the older the track, the more they’d revamped it. Songs from last year’s Pictures were very much like the album versions, but My Aphrodisiac is You, from 2003, was very different. It wasn’t over the top, though – most became more swingy / jazzy than their album counterparts, but still kept the essence of the original song. That’s how my limited musical knowledge interpreted it, anyway.

It was nice to be at a concert with people around whom there’s no need to couch your enthusiasm. Lil & Tom like her as much as I do, so there was none of the silly aloofness that some musical situations engender. Indeed, the whole evening was very relaxed, with one-tier tickets, and Lil & Tom discovered you could easily wander up to the stage. Most groups stayed with their food and wine, so the stage-crowd was only five rows deep and you could get very close (this was quite different from the other concert of hers I went to, where the front row was still the other side of a lake). So we took turns at heading forwards.

I’ve never been that close to a live performance before. In the last couple of years I’ve picked up a lot about music (though I still have a long way to go) and I found it interesting to watch the dynamics of the band. A dude at the back alternated between bass guitars, mandolins and various other instruments I couldn’t identify. Katie mostly played rhythm guitar, with a lead guitarist handling all the tough stuff (and lots of it really is quite tricky – I’ve tried and failed at the regular riff in If You Were a Sailboat). He spent most of the act deep in concentration, but the rest of them interacted a lot. Katie herself rarely stopped smiling, which, as well as being undeniably pretty in itself, regularly infected the rest of the band.

Katie sang tracks from her three albums, leaving the headline hits for the last half hour. I’d have put money on Closest Thing to Crazy closing out the show, but it wasn’t even the final pre-encore track. I headed to the front with my camera for the final two. The first was the only new track of the night, although I honestly can’t remember it now. I suspect it was quite the emotional one, though:

Then the band left the stage, and she sang I Cried for You. I think it’s a particularly lovely song, and I am in awe of anybody who can sing like that while flawlessly playing an acoustic guitar:

Singing 'I cried for you'

I like ballads, and I like her, and I was standing in the Devon twilight on a warm summer evening with two good friends, and it was great.