Union Chapel, Islington
“Welcome to an evening of songs that you don’t know!” was how Thea greeted the crowd at Union Chapel last night. It was a fair point. Her new album, The Counterweight, wasn’t released until today (a signed, deluxe edition from her website dropped onto my doormat about 12 hours after she stepped off the stage) and 10 of the 18 songs performed tonight were taken from the new album. Even those of us who follow her Facebook posts, receive her mailing list postings and so on had only heard a couple of them before. So there we were in the gorgeous Union Chapel, seeing Thea, her musical and life companion Nigel Stonier, a 4 piece string section along with drums and bass (plus occasional assistance from 10 year old son Egan Stonier) essay a hour and a half or so of music, an hour of which our ears had never met before.
Even to an audience as adoring as hers, and I freely admit that I would pay to hear her sing the Conservative Party manifesto, might find themselves tried by so much unfamiliarly material from an artist with an impressive back catalogue to choose from, but it’s a risk that paid off handsomely. The new songs more than earned their place. Opener Fall Together is all gorgeous atmospherics, Johnny Gets a Gun with its rapid handclap accompaniment sounds like an old favourite already, and Sounds Good To Me thumps along and possibly earns the ovation of the night with the exception of encore closer The War. This last song, which couldn’t really fit in anywhere except as the climax of the evening, was written for and dedicated to Jo Cox. Accompanied by just Nigel Stonier on piano and Liz Hanks on cello Thea threw every ounce of dedication she could into this hushed call to arms, to knowing that trying may be all you can do and is worth doing even if it is all you can do.
The Counterweight has been described as a ‘grown’ up’ companion piece to the 2003 album Avalanche and it’s a telling comparison. Up until Avalanche Thea had been the smart young song-writer with a sharp and questioning point of view. The song Avalanche itself is a meditation on 911, and given the explicit link between that album and her new one might well have earned a place in the set list last night. The albums which followed found her acquiring the hard won wisdom which most of us gain when we’ve been through the mill a bit. The trouble with hard won wisdom of course is that most us arrive at the same answers (realise what and who are important to you, trust your own sense of what is right regardless of what others say and so on). It’s always more interesting to hear someone young asking questions than someone a little older tell you what they believe to be the answers. With The Counterweight Thea is addressing herself to big, worldwide concerns and allowing her biting wit and quotable lyrics to work in anger more than sorrow, and so far as I’m concerned that’s a very good thing indeed.
In other news, anyone looking for familiar tunes wasn’t entirely ignored, with welcome showings for Saviours and All from 2001s Rules for Jokers (probably still my favourite Thea Gilmore album after all these years, against some pretty tough competition) and Love Came Looking for Me. Even London, from the project where Thea put music to some rediscovered Sandy Denny lyrics at the invitation of Sandy’s estate, engaged me in a way thought I never thought it would again.
Overall then, an outstanding performance. Not just a wonderful venue, an appreciative crowd and superb performances, but the thrill of discovering new music from an artist I have followed devotedly for well over a decade, and who has just produced some of the finest songs of her career. Who could possibly ask more of a night out than that? See the link for the rest of the dates on the tour. You’d be daft not to go if you can
‘Weathered’ might be the best description, but attentive and appreciative too.
It made me think..
I’ve said it before and no doubt will again, but if Thea Gilmore hasn’t written the greatest catalogue of 21st century British song then I would really like to know who has.