FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: A BLESSED SPACE
Next time you find yourself in a matt black painted brick box room with the PA straining to hit 11 and the sound engineer being harangued to turn up the vocals, consider the alternative of how grand live music can sound in a church. Which is where I found myself on Monday evening; indeed, at the Grade II listed Union Chapel in Compton Terrace on the east side of Islington’s Upper Street. The chapel was designed in part to amplify the human voice and this makes it exceptionally fit for purpose to project live music. The chapel eschews the conventional nave and aisle design found in churches for a massive irregular octagon set within a rectangle, with galleries on five sides, and crowned with an elaborately decorated wooden ceiling soaring upwards into a dome.
Fully seated with traditional wooden pews carefully arranged on a raked ground floor and on the upper balconies, it offers a perfect eyeline to pulpit and stage for up to 850 people. Fittingly, the rose window above the great organ features angels playing musical instruments as you are unlikely to find a building anywhere where a voice can sound quite so angelic. The acoustics are simply astonishing and help create an ambiance and intimacy between audience and performers quite unlike any other London venue I know. There is also a vibrancy about the place which balances the more formal aspects of the building.
All photos of Ingrid Michaelson and Sugar & the Hi-Lows at the Union Chapel are by Jon D Barker
Tonight, the Union Chapel plays host to visiting US star Ingrid Michaelson appearing with Hannah Winkler and Allie Moss with support from Sugar & the Hi-Lows. It is clear from Ingrid’s opening remarks that the Union Chapel is a favourite venue of hers but before we get to that there was a delightful set from Nashville-based singer/songwriters Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup aka Sugar & the Hi-Lows to get your teeth into. The duo’s repertoire was entirely new to me but it was easy to warm to its laid-back tone with songs seemingly chosen to reflect the evening’s Christmas theme.
There is a classic allure to how the pair present on stage with clear vocal chemistry and retro boy-and-girl appeal. The music draws strands from eclectic sources – roots, country, pop and Mississippi delta influences can all be heard in the mix - and the overall delivery is smooth and confidently flowing. Trent’s acoustic guitar work is understated yet nicely varied and highly effective in underpinning the songs while Amy’s vocals are silky and the duo’s harmonies always on point. Here is the lovely seasonal song they closed with: the title track from the duo’s 2012 holiday EP, “Snow Angel” which tonight was accompanied by gentle ‘ah-ahs’ from an audience who clearly appreciated the fun and charm Sugar & the High Lows brought to the stage.
After being warmed by Sugar & the High Lows rather than the Chapel’s heating system, there was an audible expectation in the air as the audience awaited Ingrid Michaelson’s headline set. With a smattering of Christmas classics alongside her original songs tonight, the evening quickly took on a celebratory flavour. Such is the connection between the Staten Island singer-songwriter and her loyal fans in the room, it felt you were part of a family get together ahead of the big day in December.
Flanked by her long-term friends and collaborators, Hannah Winkler (keyboard) and Allie Moss (guitar), Ingrid announced it was their first gig as a trio since 2018. Ascribing responsibility for her English accent to Dick Van Dyke and The Great British Bake Off, she clearly has a way to go with conquering the vernacular. Still, it all makes for entertaining banter and set a tone for her comic interludes throughout the evening. Ingrid is naturally funny and sets up repeat gags in the style of the great stand ups, examples being her fixation with time and tonight’s 10:30 curfew. All this is tempered by her fondness for this venue which she played 10 years ago and her real appreciation of people coming out to see her.
Opening brightly with “Home” from 2014 album Lights Out, the trio quickly established an on-stage rapport that would be a feature of the evening. They sounded exactly like The Andrews Sisters on the Vaughn Monroe Christmas classic “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, seamlessly accompanied by an orchestral backing track, while Michaelson originals “Christmas Valentine” (originally a duet with Jason Mraz) and “Christmas Lights” (from her last album, Stranger Songs) dovetailed brilliantly. The latter worked simply and beautifully as a piano-accompanied ballad.
Revealing that the weekend had been spent in the Cotswolds – cue near orgasmic references to the area’s natural beauty – the set progressed with a singalong “Be OK” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree” featuring a gloriously cheesy group dance routine. “We call that one Beyonce. She would be horrified” Ingrid quipped. Her new festive single, “It’s Almost Christmas” previewed here two weeks ago, then got its live debut with the three singers alternating verses and harmonising sweetly on the choruses as we imagined seasonal cheer and log fires. A mid set peak was then scaled with the glorious “Girls Chase Boys” delivered with true panache: “All the broken hearts in the world still beat / Let's not make it harder than it has to be”. Says it all, really.
After a lesson in how Brits pronounce ‘tuna’ and ‘tuner’, as in piano tuner, there was a further comic moment when Ingrid had to restart her ukulele powered cover of the Hawaiian-themed Christmas song “Mele Kalikimaka” after an outbreak of polyrhythmic clapping disturbed the tempo. Note: this tune was recorded in 1950 by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters but you would struggle to unpick better harmonies than tonight’s. “Winter Song”, co-written with Sara Bareilles, then contributed an elemental take on the Christmas season while “You & I” was lustily accompanied by the stomp-stomp-clap refrain a la We Will Rock You. A Michaelson live set-piece, “The Chain”, followed; with three vocalists to complete the song’s round, there was no need for an audience member to take the stage this time.
Now, I really didn’t set out to mention every song Ingrid played tonight but it was that kind of evening and anyhow I’m on a roll now. So… Richard Himber’s “Winter Wonderland” with more Andrew Sisters modelled harmonies and coy dances came next, dovetailing nicely into “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year”, Ingrid’s 2021 Christmas collaboration with Zooey Deschanel, a name which randomly makes me think of Weird Al’s “Lame Claim to Fame”: ‘One time I was staying in the same hotel as Zooey Deschanel.’ The set then climaxed with the softly melodic and heartfelt “The Way I Am”. This was Ingrid’s breakthrough song back in 2007, earned her much needed bucks when it was used for a sweater commercial and sounded as fresh and peppered with human foibles as always.
Ingrid closed with a solo piano version of the Elvis Presley 1961 hit “Can't Help Falling in Love” which I seem to recall hazily was her final song in 2012 here too before returning tout ensemble to link hands metaphorically to a captivated audience to “Auld Lang Syne”, eruditely described as a Robert Burns cover on Setlist-FM! What more can I say? All the components were here tonight that underline what a special talent Ingrid Michaelson has. She has such a distinct timbre to her voice, discretely silky yet with a faint hint of underlying rasp, and an individual writing style that I’d recognise anywhere. She loves Christmas too. It was great to see her alongside Hannah Winkler (Secret Someones super fan here) and her long-time guitar accompanist Allie Moss whose subtle skills always strike the right note. Together they harmonise like sisters [Don’t mention The Andrews Sisters again – Ed].
If you would like some more, Ingrid’s 16th annual fan favourite Holiday Hop event is to be live-streamed worldwide on 4 December. Details can be found here.