FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: IT’S LIVE, JIM
Today’s Fifty3 Fridays focuses on live music which, after two years of Covid interruptions, is back like it never went away. Venue calendars are filling up so fast that this week I was asked if I wanted to buy tickets for a show scheduled for summer 2023. With apologies for a musically derived Star Trek misquote (thank you The Firm) and further convolution, it is really live Jim but, for all intents and purposes, as we know it too.
Tube trains are packed and I’m one of the few wearing a mask who isn’t into Cosplay. That’s Cosplay not Coldplay, people. You can still find hand sanitiser at live music venues but not much else seems left from the days of social distancing. The bar prices are steeper than ever but, then again, we should not begrudge venues trying to make a bit back after enforced closures. Anyhow, today I find myself trying to finish, or more like start this piece, before I go off to a gig for the third night in a row. At least this one only requires a short walk up the road.
Wednesday night, the first leg of my live triumvirate, involved a trip to Stoke Newington to St Matthias, a Grade 1 listed church which has stood since 1853 in its gothic, modestly austere splendour. Like many churches of this size, it is blessed with fine acoustics, making it a perfect space to project a special kind of voice. We had one of those tonight in the exceptional form of Melbourne-based songstress, Grace Cummings. Her voice defies easy comparisons but if you must have them there is something of the power of Janis Joplin and the gravel of Tom Waits about it. Equally there is a quiet lyrical underbelly to it that gives rise to many a sweeter tone.
Solo tonight, armed just with her acoustic guitar, other than a couple of forays on the adjacent grand piano, Grace’s 14-song set drew from her 2019 album, Refuge Cove and its fine recent sequel, Storm Queen. The live video of “Up In Flames” (shown above) gives you a glimpse of Grace Cummings’ ability to live out her songwriting stripped down in a live situation and lend it a dramatic cadence. It was an art she displayed many times this evening; on the piano, spilling out her world-weary words in cathartic squalls during “Dreams” or on guitar unsettling you with sheer raw intensity on “Heaven”.
There were lighter moments too. Having just flown in long haul from down under, you could excuse Grace some jet lag and the odd sip of Jameson; even her unchurch-like vernacular. Any weariness instantly dissipated once she sang while, between songs, her wry digs at folk music belied the label she is often given herself. Hers is a voice you have to take note of and there were plenty of stand out moments. For me, the rises and falls in her lament, “Lullaby for Refuge Cove”, and the way her expressions matched her voice in the piano ballad, “Sweet Matilda” were special among many.
The set closed with “Paisley”, channelling memories drawn from a visit with a friend to Scotland, prefaced by a friendly exchange with an audience member who was born there. ‘Paisley shines faint in the Scottish sunlight /Swims in a glass of wine drunk by a friend of mine’; it was a simple, heartfelt snapshot in time and a fine end to a memorable evening.
Thursday evening came quickly. It was to be a night of contrasts but one thing the Swedish singer-songwriter Sarah Klang shares with Grace Cummings is an extremely powerful voice, though quite different in material and genre. Sarah’s 2018 debut album Love In The Milky Way won Best Album at the Swedish Grammy Awards and the Gothenburg-based artiste added a second, Creamy Blue, a year later until the pandemic put a break on her rising career, at least from a live perspective. She put the time to good use though, releasing a third long player in May 2021, the excellent Virgo.
Tonight, she kicked off the short UK leg of a European tour that we will see her playing extensively on home turf in Sweden and popping over to Norway and Denmark for two one-off shows. An ample crowd greeted her at Bush Hall in West London; a highly civilised gig location with chandeliers and ornate plasterwork greeting artistes and audience. The venue’s pocket-sized stage though seemed a tight fit for Sarah’s musicians and equipment. She took the stage in an outfit that could have landed her a part in Frozen after a short, drum heavy overture from her four-piece band and launched into the strong opening track from Virgo, “17 Pounds”; a slice of break-up Americana that seems second nature to Scandinavian singers and is blessed with a great guitar outro.
It was quickly followed by one of my favourites from the album, “Fever Dream”; a lush and sensual reverie sung with passion against a backcloth of wonderfully resonant guitar and keyboard stings. Sarah revealed herself to be a new mum and amused us with a tale of how she met her man before channelling her inner Stevie Nicks on the Fleetwood Mac vibe of “Ghost Killer”. Upstairs at the Bush, the sound tends to bounce around unforgiving walls, but the small balcony gives you a great view and perspective on the gig. Downstairs with the main crowd to absorb it, the sound is pretty much spot on all evening.
From the slow blues of “Endless Sadness” to the pure power balladry of “Anywhere”, Sarah demonstrates versatility underwritten by her vocal strength. Midway through the set I prosaically noted down ‘Boy, can this lady give it some welly.’ Listening to the record now it’s clear that live, Sarah Klang’s voice has an extra muscle that gives it real presence over and above the refinement you get in the recording studio. The same is apparent throughout the set. “Anywhere” is also hallmarked by a clean guitar descending introduction that repeats through the whole song to give it an anthemic feel.
Sarah Klang embraces a country sensibility in her knack for storytelling, echoed across her set in songs about past loves, won and lost; about missing people and moving on. “Wake up and my mind is a desert /And my heart is a canyon” she sings in (you guessed) “Canyon” underlining a need to reinvigorate herself; her deeper vocal echoing the metaphor. Towards the end of the set, she announces that “Strangers” is the first song she ever released. The object of her young love is long gone. She tells us he is married now and she ran into him a couple of weeks ago and ‘nothing happened!’
Closing with the romantic miss-you song, “Mind”, an encore is quickly demanded and delivered in the shape of “Demons” from her debut album in which Sarah Klang hits some operatic heights. It was a fitting end to a night of highlights and a crowd quickly dispersed satiated and happy.
All photos of Grace Cummings and Sarah Klang by Kevin England
So, tonight is the third leg of my trio of live gigs but as it hasn’t actually happened yet, I’ll leave you with a little taster. Palace is an indie-rock four-piece from London who have been around for almost 10 years. A stripped back set from frontman Leo Wyndham and guitarist Rupert Turner at my local church, St John's in Kingston, awaits. In January, Palace released its third album, Shoals, from whither comes this sumptuous track, “Friends Forever”. Enjoy!
The Palace gig is organised by the wonderful folk of Banquet Records in Kingston who are also due to welcome Laura-Mary Carter in her solo guise for an instore session on 18 March. Laura-Mary is also one half of the acclaimed indie duo, Blood Red Shoes. The intimate show is to celebrate the release of her solo mini-album, Town Called Nothing. Here is the beautifully languid title track to close today's offering.
I STAND WITH UKRAINE