FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE COVID
Today’s musical fare is all to do with Christmas but like a cold takeaway it is at risk of being served up a tad late. With the Covid Inquiry providing daily psychodramas, it is hard to get away from the dreaded virus and right on cue it has struck my dear wife and I this week. Three very inactive days, two no shows at Christmas lunches and a once more postponed hospital visit have meant that rather a lot has been left for me to do this Friday. So, better crack on…
Thankfully I was virus-free last Friday evening and able to enjoy the Ingrid Michaelson Trio’s Christmas Show at London’s Union Chapel. So, we will start off this Christmas candied bulletin with a short report from this marvellous gathering on a frosty night when you needed your chestnuts roasted rather than pickled.
All photos of Ingrid Michaelson and Hayley Turner at Union Chapel are by Kevin England
The Union Chapel is acknowledged by Ingrid Michaelson as one of her favourite live venues. Such is the clarity of the acoustics here combined with the potential for awe as much as for intimacy, it is not hard to see why. I was lucky to be here last year for her Christmas show and indeed for her first seasonal appearance at the venue back in November 2012. For tonight’s show her trio is formed of long-term sidekick Allie Moss and this year by Portland, ME native Billy Libby, both richly contributing guitar and backing vocals, while Ingrid switched from vocal only to ukelele and keyboard.
“Home”, from Ingrid’s 2014 album Lights Out, was a warming opener in a space where you wished someone would keep the door to the bar and outside loos shut more often. The first half of the set focused on Michaelson originals and it was not until song 7 that the first Christmas cover was unveiled in the shape of the Hawaiian-themed seasonal song “Mele Kalikimaka”, originally recorded in 1950 by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. Tonight’s sisters and one brother crafted an immaculate take on it. Before we got there, the poignant keyboard-accompanied “Christmas Lights”, inspired by Stranger Things no less, really shone while comic digressions around various covers of the 1970 Donny Hathaway classic anthem “This Christmas” preceded and followed Ingrid’s newly penned song of the same name. She shares a love of the repeat gag and delivers the set up and punchlines like a seasoned stand-up.
Written for a new rom com, A Heidelberg Holiday, Ingrid’s own “This Christmas” is part homily, part schmaltz which endorses her deep love of celebrating the festive season. There is beauty in its simplicity and charm but before we get too sugary, there was another deft comic touch as she pressed a button and played some ‘put you on hold’ music while tuning her ukelele before delivering her much-loved “Winter Song”, co-written with Sara Bareilles. Ingrid went on to set up another humorous diversion when she stopped to comment on a baby crying out. By two or three songs later I think the whole audience had spotted the baby and parents while conversations were had ‘twixt stage and stalls.
Space limits me commenting on every song but second half highlights included the perennial “Maybe”, a duet with her actor boyfriend Will Chase who offered an impressive croon on another Bing Crosby classic, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and a touching song from Ingrid’s new stage musical version of The Notebook, soon to open on Broadway, “If This Is Love”. Another endearing set reached a fine conclusion with her 2007 breakout song “The Way I Am”, a tout ensemble rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” and a final pin-drop solo piano outing, “Snowfall”. The audience loved every minute of it and gave Ingrid and her bandmates a standing ovation; in itself a plea to come back again next Christmas.
I should also pay tribute to Ingrid’s opening act, Australian singer-songwriter Hayley Warner who warmed up the crowd with a spirited five-song set and returned with her band for “Auld Lang Syne”, although I am not confident that anyone gave her an advance copy of Rabbie Burns' words. Accompanied by an adept string-driven trio and keyboardist to augment her voice and acoustic guitar, the 2009 Australian Idol runner-up showed off some impassioned vocals allied to nuanced moments on her original songs while her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” was rawly emotive. My recollection of song titles was not aided by wiping my phone notes in the semi-dark but “You Were Once” will give you a flavour of Hayley Warner.
For the second half of this Christmas flavoured issue, I turn to some newly minted seasonal tunes and who better to get the indie-spirited party started but those mysterious Midlands marvels, The Happy Somethings. The trio has released a Christmas album no less entitled Don’t Mention It. [I told you not to mention it – Ed]. The cover may be a tinsel-free zone and it might not look like a Christmas record, nor be named as one, but in true alternative spirit The Happys have put together a selection of 12 songs which loosely feel apt for Christmas. You can download it for free at Bandcamp or pay anything you like which the band will reinvest in new recordings. The lead track is called “Nothing's Just For Christmas”, a statement that I think we can all raise a glass and shake a leg to.
For the past two years I have been delighted to support Welsh journalist Kevin McGrath’s tireless fundraising via curation of fascinating compilation albums initially for the Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff and latterly for the homeless charity, Crisis. Last month Kevin announced the third and final volume in the Have Yourself a Merry Indie Christmas series, Volume III. The latest volume celebrates all that is eclectic in independent music and offers 35 tracks for £5 or more on Bandcamp. Just as its predecessors, it is packed with gems and rarities, the like of which you are unlikely to uncover via mainstream radio or streaming. Kevin is well on his way to achieve his modest target of £1,750 sales and I am pretty sure that will be exceeded soon. It is mission impossible to pick just one feature track but you could do worse than alighting on Charlie Darling aka Les Bicyclettes de Belsize and the lovely “It Only Snows At Christmas.”
I mentioned serving things up late in the opening remarks so we linger no longer than to take in two final Christmas offerings. Might I leave you with Hattie Whitehead’s beautifully measured take on “In The Bleak Midwinter”, released to raise awareness of the truly compassionate work of Doctors Without Borders, with all proceeds from Bandcamp purchases going direct to the charity.
As a companion piece, the wonderfully reflective “Stop For A Moment” from seasoned folk singer Marina Florance offers space in ‘this graceless place’ for hope and peace.