Open, Norwich, and Union Chapel, London
What a difference a lighting rig can make.
I have loved Thea Gilmore’s music for most of the couple of decades that she has been releasing superb, occasionally dipping to merely very good, albums and always catch a gig on each tour as well as buying every album in the week of release. This time The Light and I plumped for a train and Travelodge trip to Norwich rather a school night visit to London and the chosen show, at Open, fell on the day of release of Small World Turning.
Matt Owens, formerly of Noah and the Whale, played a short but amiable opening set before reappearing on electric bass with Thea’s band, along side Katriona Gilmore, no relation, on a variety of stringed instruments (right handed fiddle but left handed mandolin oddly enough) and Thea’s musical and life partner Nigel Stonier. At times the bass dominated the acoustic guitars, and I wondered about the lack of drums.
The performance was highly enjoyable with plenty of songs from the new record and a smattering of old favourites, notably a couple from 2001s Rules for Jokers, but … It may have been lack of familiarity with the new songs, though Cutteslowe Walls and Grandam Gold made an immediate impression. Maybe it was the cavernous venue, a former banking hall with an enormous black curtain separating the few hundred seats at the front from a distant bar, and a high roof (a sign on a side door directed visitors towards a climbing wall in an adjacent room). Perhaps it was the stark stage setting and minimal lighting. Whatever it was, we came away with a signed CD thinking we had seen a good show, but not a transcendent one.
In the days since I have come to Iove the songs on the excellent album (bar the single The Fuse, a song about the redemptive power of music which made we wish I’d never heard a second of it). I have got my head around the social issues angles of the songs, which haven’t stopped the album getting 5* reviews in The Sun and The Mail on Sunday. I realised that there were no drums on the album either, which has a more acoustic sound than recent efforts and put me mind of Rules for Jokers more than any other Thea record since Avalanche. Thankfully Nigel has reined in his kitchen sink production this time round to allow the voice and songs, the greatest weapons in Thea’s armoury, to shine through.
Normally that would be it, but on Tuesday I was at a conference in Westminster and seeing as someone else had already paid for my train ticket it would have been rude not to get the tube over to Islington afterwards and pay on the door at Union Chapel for my second Thea gig in 5 days.
Blimey. Union Chapel have got a new lighting rig in and they’re certainly not shy about using it. Dry ice drifted through the chapel, cut with blue, green and red lights from the balcony and the back of the stage while rays shot up from the stone pulpit to the ornate wooden roof. I’m of the opinion that if you can’t get into the front couple of rows at Union Chapel you’re better off upstairs, so that was where I headed, to a front balcony seat on what I knew to be ‘Thea’s’ side of the stage.
From that vantage point Matt’s opening set was equally amiable (with the same anecdotes and intros as anyone who has seen a couple of shows of the same tour will know), but much more commanding. Picked out by high spotlights against a dark stage his presence was magnified and the appreciation from the audience warmer and louder.
Come 9 o’clock Thea and her band took to the stage to loud applause and proceeded to play the same set I had seen in Norwich, but to the accompaniment an ever changing light show. That might have been distracting but instead gave the songs the dramatic backdrop they deserved. For the encore, old favourite This Girl is Taking Bets and the new Karr’s Lament, I moved around to the centre balcony to enjoy the music and setting in London’s most pleasingly symmetrical venue.
Knowing the new album now I was sorry not to hear some favourite tracks. Blowback or The Loading Game would have gone down a treat, and the gorgeous closing lullaby Dreamers would have taken the show including encore to 90 minutes instead of a slightly scant 85.
I wouldn’t have wanted to drop any of the songs that were in the set though (well, maybe London and of course The Fuse). The New Tin Drum hurtled along, And Don’t Dim Your Light for Anyone was received with hushed awe (‘You’re very quiet,’ Thea said, ‘Is it because were in a church?’. No, Thea. Just got something in my eye is all.) so we’re the performances better on Tuesday than Friday? Maybe. There was a little less explanation of them before plunging into the performance, the band seemed tighter and the ovation from the audience at the end was certainly more enthusiastic (including mine).
Or it might be that a show is made up of so many elements, some of which will be beyond the acts’ control, or at least at the level where they depend on the house PA and lights. The show at Open didn’t quite tick enough to be entirely satisfying; the same show at Union Chapel did that and more.
Of a certain age and tending to the grey and balding.
It made me think..
It’s always better to take a punt as it often turns out better than you could have expected