The Mencap series of Little Noise Sessions continued tonight with a collection of songwriters, both new and familiar. Australian 19-year-old Lisa Mitchell was the first to take the stage, as the doll-faced youngster took aim at an audience unaware of who she was.
Tottering on nervously, she was wise to begin with Neopolitan Dreams, which immediately rang bells in people’s minds around the church as a song that soundtracked a washing powder advert.
With that, everyone was won over by her curiously affected yet sweet take on the Bjrk/Joanna Newsom school of childlike vocal delivery and her flawless guitar strumming. Captivating, she showcased a few songs from debut album Wonder, as well as a cover of Dire Straits‘ Romeo And Juliet. Ed Harcourt joined her to end the set with their album track Stevie, and as her guitar and his piano joined forces, she left the stage having exceeded everyone’s expectations.
The Low Anthem have hardly put a foot wrong this year, having taken things up more than a notch with album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. Their live shows have become must-sees, as demonstrated tonight by a sublime gig. With a fourth member recruited, there was even more scope than usual for instrument-swapping and audience-wowing as they took turns to accompany their bluesy Americana with everything from guitars and harmonicas through to the saw and the astonishing cymbal/bells of the crotales.
Showing incredible versatility to his voice, Ben Knox Miller became a different person depending on which song he was singing, whether it was the tender falsetto soul of their album’s title track or the raw raspiness invoked on Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around. With Jeff Prystowsky’s awesome double bass providing much of the band’s rhythm, the drumkit was used sparingly. Tingling spines from the outset with the stunning To The Ghosts Who Write History Books, right through to the closing rock of drinking song The Horizon Is A Bellway, this band may have emerged in 2009, but who’re still confounding even raised expectations.
It must be difficult to follow a set as good as that, but fortunately for David Gray, the vast majority of the audience were here to see him. Looking pretty natty in a well-fitted suit and a tidy stubble, he was accompanied by two similarly spruced up cohorts. Without percussive help, his instrumentation was limited to a few guitars, a piano and a very funky looking double bass. It almost felt like a step back after The Low Anthem’s set full of gadgets and appliances, but in a way the Union Chapel demands stripping everything back and doing things simply.
Although he began with three songs from current album Draw The Line, Gray eventually managed to mix in some of his older stuff including the relatively unknown As I’m Leaving. The warmest reception was naturally reserved for his White Ladder material, tonight represented by This Year’s Love and Babylon, the former of which resulted in a yell of “this piano’s fucked” as one of the keys kept getting stuck. At least it woke those of us up who were starting to drift.
For, diva strops aside, Gray seemed a little flat tonight. There were none of the “excitable” vibes that you’d expect from someone playing this venue for the first time. Obviously he’s been doing this playing live thing for a long time, and maybe he’s just a very levelled, cool chap, but without too much chat he simply moved between guitar and piano, gently making his way through the material.
Gray is your archetypal singer-songwriter. His songs are well-written and his lyrics have a sense of poetry. Live, he sounds exactly as you’d imagine David Gray to sound – his voice has a lovely quality to it and the playing is accomplished. As the three musicians finished side by side, fusing their guitar work together for a cover of Bob Dylan‘s Meet Me In The Morning, there were signs of genuine brilliance.
Undoubtedly, for those already converted to him, this was a wonderful gig as demonstrated by the standing ovation to which he left. For those yet to be persuaded, there was little sense of surprise or excitement, but rather a man going through the motions.