Live Music + Gig Reviews

Alela Diane @ St Giles-in-the-fields, London

30 March 2009

Tonight’s gig takes place in St Giles-in-the-fields, a striking Palladian style church that dates back to 1734 and now hides in the shadow of the seemingly omnipresent eyesore that is the Centre Point tower.

The finely crafted, elaborately decorated venue forms an ideal venue for Alela Diane Menig’s heartfelt and fragile folk songs.

But first up is support act William E Whitmore. This bearded Iowan begins with an affecting a capella which sets out his stall of rough-edged blues immediately.

His voice is raw yet rich and booms around the church to such an extent you fear for the stained glass windows. The power of Whitmore’s voicebox is undeniable as he runs through tales of hard times, woe and “Desperation, death and despair” as he himself sings on final track Old Devils. But while it’s impassioned, soulful stuff it proves a little dark and depressing by the set’s end. Hardly uplifting, but sometimes that’s the blues for you.

When Alela Diane takes to the stage she announces that this is the last show to be held in this striking venue, certainly another loss for London’s live music circuit. She then fills it with stirring arpeggiated guitar before inviting her father Tom to join her for a duet.

As each track passes, more elements are added to the band. Alina Hardin creates sweetly struck harmonies with Alela, who herself provides an enchanting mixture of fragility and strength, beauty and heartache. But this fine balance is somewhat upset when the rest of band, a bassist and drummer, take to the stage.

This altered dynamic is all good and well for the initial country-flavoured twang, but their presence is less welcome when they apply the same heavy-handed bass and beats to White As Diamonds. The 25-year-old Californian’s soaring voice is backed by fantastic vocal harmonies but is forced to compete with the same, now misplaced, stomping drums.

This becomes something of a theme with almost military-style beats underpinning each track thereafter, including a cover of Fleetwood Mac‘s Gold Dust Woman and the otherwise subtle Every Path. Ominous tribal war drums are then bashed to introduce The Ocean and it comes as a relief when the drummer and bass player are ditched for Tired Feet.

The touching Oh! My Mama then allows the purity of Alela’s voice and emotional lyrics to return to the fore. A solo effort forms the start of the encore before the complete band return for Fairport Convention‘s folk standard Matty Groves and some more overweight drumbeats.

When accompanied by just Hardin and her father (he took the photo on this page, too), Alela Diane’s way of crafting bittersweet modern folk songs is fantastically, upliftingly clear. But just as St Giles stands within the ugly shadow of Centre Point, the aural beauty of her compositions was overshadowed by ham-fisted drum pounding and superfluous bass plucking. A night of various mesmerising moments, tainted by the nagging disappointment of what might have been.

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