Live Music + Gig Reviews

Joan Shelley @ Kings Place, London

1 September 2023

Achieving power and grace without any apparent strain or reach, there’s a friendly campfire intimacy to her first London gig in five years

Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley (Photo: Mickey Winters)

Just as it feels the pandemic gig backlog is finally getting under control, along came one of the longest gestating performances of this unfortunate decade so far. Originally scheduled for May 2020 with James Elkington in support, this Joan Shelley show had been reorganised so many times (during which period Shelley and her partner Nathan Salsburg had a daughter who is now two years old) that it had to be completely cancelled and rebooked. That the show is now finally taking place is a reminder of the sheer amount of time occupied by this pandemic.

Shelley is an understated performer, but her unassuming qualities cannot mask her artistry, and it turns out good things do come to those who wait. The support act may have changed (a meditative and haunting turn from Cian Nugent, collaborating with another guitarist for the first time), but the way in which Shelley and Salsburg perform together has not, although the breadth and ambition of their songwriting continues to grow.

Every time they return to London, the duo of Shelley and Salsburg seem to be graduating to more established, larger venues. Yet the nature of their performance in the concert hall at Kings Place (described by Shelley as “intimidating for just the two of us” proves as similarly relaxed and gently humorous as they had been in the backroom of the Islington pub in 2015. There is a friendly campfire intimacy to the way in which they perform, frequently involving the audience and alleviating some lengthy waits for alternative tunings with stories and jokes. One duck related joke in particular has become a favourite of their young daughter, who received an ovation for telling it on stage at a folk music festival in the US. There are occasional slips and errors, possibly due to flying in just the previous day (Salsburg forgets which tuning he should be in a couple of times), but these just enhance the non-judgmental, friendly mood of collaboration and sharing.

Shelley is not a showy, demonstrative performer, but is instead entirely effortless in the way she sings, her voice flowing smoothly and the lyrics always clearly articulated. She produces a soft and utterly enchanting sound that suits her gently gliding melodies. Her gifts as a singer come across even more clearly on the spectacular a cappella performance Between Rock And Sky. Salsburg has a similarly fluid guitar playing style, with lines that flow freely, never sounding tricksy or angular. There is some similarity with the work of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but Salsburg does not sing as much as Rawlings, and, while bluegrass and blues influences are present here, they are less explicit. The songs on Shelley’s most recent album The Spur often have more expanded arrangements on the recording but here they are stripped to their essentials. The opening title track is particularly beautiful, with a chorus that takes flight. Sometimes Shelley and Salsburg occasionally need a little help to recreate the layers of the album, and the crowd singalong on the chorus of Like The Thunder (an unusually uptempo song for Shelley), while oddly non-prescriptive, is also terrific fun.

The centrepiece of this show is a guest appearance from the author Max Porter, who provided some of the lyrics on The Spur, and built an online friendship with Shelley and Salsburg during the ups and downs of the varying pandemic restrictions. His contribution is to read an elaborated email correspondence chain between the three of them, not always presented in sequence, that manages to present a burgeoning transatlantic meeting of minds against a context of a love of nature and various political and social frustrations. Salsburg accompanies him with some wispy, subtle guitar figures and the overall effect is calming and empathetic. Another highlight is a wonderful choice of cover with Frank Sinatra’s I Would Be In Love Anyway (from the underrated Watertown album). Shelley of course does not sound like Sinatra, but she certainly shares a commitment with him to clarity of phrasing and articulation, and this sensitive performance works brilliantly as a result.

The set is relatively concise and only finds space for a handful of older songs. Fortunately, these do include The Fading, one of the most delightful and deeply resonant songs that Shelley has written. There’s also a lovely rendition of Not Over By Half in the encore. It would have been lovely to have had a piano onstage to enable them to perform Bolt, one of the loveliest moments on The Spur and something texturally different, but this takes nothing away from what is another relaxed, joyful and deeply impressive performance from the duo. Sometimes, although no doubt as a result of practice and hard work, music can achieve a power and grace without any apparent strain or reach.

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