Of all the unlikely musical pairings in recent times, Jesca Hoop and Guy Garvey deserve special mention. The genial Elbow frontman, all northern charm and indie anthems, is like a favourite bitter. Hoop, on the other hand, former nanny to Tom Waits's children, is more like something Lewis Carroll's Alice might have drunk, in the adaptation by Tim Burton. Since she moved from California to Manchester, Garvey has been mentoring Hoop, and appeared on her best-known song. But last night's gig was all her, with a little help from four friends.

And the packed London bar was also shown why, in a scene saturated with high-quality female songwriters, Hoop is fast emerging as the connoisseurs' choice. It's not the image. From Laura Moody to PJ Harvey, slightly Gothic kooks are now a dime a dozen. Nor is it the voice. Hoop does have an ethereal, otherworldly voice but it's nothing to make her stand out from, say, Marling or Wasser. And it's certainly not the back story, although her journey from Californian Mormon to a Manchester flatshare does give Dawn Kinnard's passage from Tennessee to London sofa-bed some competition in the reverse romance stakes.

'Once she had got herself comfortable on the stage she turned on a tap of non-stop banter, deceptive in its guileless charm'

No, it's all down to the songs. Especially the more recent ones. 2008's album, Kismet, although impressively diverse and reassuringly original, was still a dry run for last year's startling, beguiling Hunting My Dress. You can pick holes, of course. Despite all the variety in style there still seems to be a lack of dynamics. Similarly last night's set list was imperfect, a little too downbeat and strangely omitting “The Kingdom”, which has the distinction of containing two of Hoops's best tunes. But she's at that part of a songwriter's cycle when they need to experiment. She's back to Manchester today and then off to LA at the weekend to record her third long-player.

That would probably explain the odd choice of opening song, the new “Dig My Record”. Dressed in a long black dress, she came on and started before half the room had realised that she'd taken to the stage. The song felt a little unfinished, and also seemed to be doubling as the sound check, with Hoop claiming to be unable to hear herself in the monitor. But once she had got herself comfortable on the stage she turned on a tap of non-stop banter, deceptive in its guileless charm. Hoop might have appeared to be reeling off a ditzy catalogue of things that went on in her Californian Mormon community, but there was actually a lot of skill in her warm intimate storytelling and the anecdotes she selected. The background she gave of getting her dying mother stoned, for instance, added poignancy to a beautiful “Whispering Light”, with primly dressed backing singers Zoe Chiotis and Rebecca Stephens adding harmonies.

The arrangements of the songs for the three girls plus a drummer and guitarist worked better in some places than others. It complemented “Four Dreams”'s Beck-like rhythms, but the most interesting thing about “Feast of the Heart” was possibly Chiotis and Stephens's dancing. The central-European carnival-pop of “Money” was a complete delight. It got the hipster crowd going, a crowd who seemed to know the repertoire well. And for a singer still best known for one song, “Murder of Birds” (see video below), it must have encouraged Hoop that the audience didn't pay it more attention than any of the other numbers. The song did, however, give James Wallace a chance to show off his solo guitar playing. Hoop herself never sounded better all night. Except possibly on the next song, the lead track off the new EP, “City Bird”, whose lyrics about the dispossessed in LA demonstrate her lyrical ability to be compassionate without being sentimental.