You sometimes wonder whether some people were made for a different age to the one in which they were born into. Agnes Obel is one of those people. There is something about her that is strikingly medieval. Perhaps it’s the way her incredibly haunting voice delivers a shock to your system as it sends shivers down your spine, or perhaps it is the dark, gothic nature of her songs and the way a hazy melancholy floats through them. Whichever way you look at it, there is a strong feeling that Obel would be more at home in a different century.
In a world where live music is fueled by over-indulgence and exuberant stage set ups, Agnes Obel strips away the unnecessary to bring everything back to basics. All she needs is a piano, a violinist, two cellos and her voice. The understated delivery and set up leaves room for her real talent to shine through without any obstructions. And it is that beautiful voice she owns that proves to be the centrepiece of every song. It is only in the live setting that the sheer strength, clarity and depth of her voice is made perfectly clear.
The Dane plays a set that is filled with a range of songs from her debut album, Philharmonics, which had been phenomenally popular in her home country and brought her national success. Yet, the set more broadly based around her latest album, Aventine, and the sparse, delicate songs that drive the album along. Somerset House provides the most stunning of backdrops, with the sun setting over the the main courtyard while the strings rattle to life on stage. Obel admires the venue, but says it makes her feel like a politician, due to its extravagant Neoclassical architecture, yet she does not seem at all intimidated and carries straight through the show hitting every note perfectly whilst being skillfully accompanied by her band of sorts.
Beast is one of the songs that really seems made for this type of venue, and takes on a much deeper and experimental depth in the live setting as it takes on a life of its own, as the two cellos build the layers much more than it sounds on record. Fuel To Fire similarly retains this haunting atmosphere, and brings a more sultry feel to the set, that permeates all corners of the courtyard and creeps over the top of the entranced and silenced spectators.
For all the beautiful sparseness of Obel’s record, however, there are times when you begin to wonder whether a little more needs to be done in reworking them for a live audience. Although each song retains its own dark beauty, there is little variety in the pace and atmosphere. On record, it is a different experience, and she is able to get away with the sparseness and frailty of the songs, but in the live setting you want to be taken on more of a journey through the highs and lows, the darkness and light. Obel is delightfully good at presenting the dark, brooding side, and is nothing short of a captivating performer, but she would do well to push herself into the light for while, if only to show us what she would come up with.
This atmosphere is only broken by the glorious applause that welcomes Riverside and works as a more uplifting number that shimmers in its sublime beauty. It’s just a shame that this only really happens once, before Obel returns to her dark, brooding world of melancholy, which although charming and intriguing, gets a bit disheartening after too long.