First, the venue: the Brighton Ballroom used to be The Hanbury, a much-loved burlesque/arts joint of many years standing. Its elegant domed ceiling and Art Deco-inspired fittings do well to encourage a more louche demeanour, and the tables lining two sides of the square main room welcome the weary. Squidgy sofas abound in the upstairs VIP area as well, but you can't necessarily see the stage if you're sitting down; new owners Proud seem to have done away with any draught beer as well, which makes for a pricey night in what is a studenty area. Still, if it's cocktails that'll sate your palate, here's where you should probably be (even if they are out of Tabasco, the equivalent of a car showroom running out of wheels).

The Ballroom was originally built as a mausoleum, and it's perhaps this history that appealed to ex-pat Californian Jesca Hoop, whose merrily maudlin take on the death ballad is laid bare tonight. Bare, that is, for two quite important reasons: one, she is accompanied only by a guitar and backing singer Becky (she usually boasts a full band, but she's “doing it punk” on this tour); and two, she freely admits mid-set to having “forgotten how to play” the aforementioned instrument while recording new mini-album Snowglobe.

Further wrong-footing follows. Jesca's clipped, pixie-like cadence and intonation are so eccentric that it frequently sounds like she's not singing in English at all. Her appealing stories, which introduce most of tonight's songs, are delivered in standard-issue No-Cal hippie tones - tales about teaching her cancer-stricken mom to smoke pot, by telephone (the last conversation they ever had, it turns out), and of the stinking cast covering her brother's broken arm once making her father vomit across the room. Regardless of her musical chops, she knows how to take a room: with charm, intrigue and a tightly knit yarn.

But is that an Irish accent on 'Whispering Light'? Once noticed, it crops up repeatedly - again during 'Tulip', by far tonight's best-received song - and resolve that it might be on account of Jesca having moved to Manchester just shy of two years ago, apparently on the suggestion of Elbow's Guy Garvey. Like it or not, she's going to be compared to Joanna Newsom, although she shares none of the harpist's other-worldly eccentricity, and Jesca's bird-like trill serves merely to rescue the more jerry-built compositions rather than pulling them into space.

A further confession, early on: “Last time I played this song, I ended it early and the audience looked at me like, 'Was that a song?'” And sure enough, on more than one occasion tonight it's hard to tell when a song should rightly end, so scarce are the traditional signposts that several sound more like rounds. And yet, and yet - we're compelled to watch till the very end, Jesca's Bonham-Carter rat's-nest 'do bobbing in time to her inexpert two-fingered plucking (her instrument may just as well only have had the two strings for most of tonight's performance), her voice slipping and twisting, dancing in and out of harmony with Becky's higher, more controlled register.

Even when Jesca loses her place, again, during 'Murder of Birds' - it's a duet with Garvey on her last album, Hunting My Dress, so maybe his absence threw her - and lapses perhaps accidentally into the US version of kids' piano standard 'Heart and Soul' (y'know, the one Tom Hanks plays on the giant keyboard in Big) we persevere. The songs must be in here somewhere, mustn't they?

All the ingredients are present: a vivid imagination, mordant wit (how's “There's no kind of attention that a black eye wouldn't get me” for an arresting, darkly comic line?), a distinctive voice, gravitas when needed, and the self-awareness to acknowledge this “stark presentation” of her work. But the finale's crescendo feels unearned, and while experiencing the absorbing and pleasurably contrary Jesca Hoop is definitely suggested, a rethink of the staging might be constructive.