In music venue terms, the Union Chapel is almost too good to be true. From outside, the unlit Gothic edifice dominates the landscape; its spire tapers into the night and the heavens, challenging anyone to take more than a fearful glimpse. Conversely, entering the building elicits something far more pleasant and familiar. It’s a feeling equal parts safety and reverence, coupled with an acknowledgment that it’s far more comforting to remain respectful in the clutches of an old religious building than it is to stand outside in its shadow, disbelieving.
Atheists or not, members of the audience tip-toe around typically cramped church aisles, trying hard to avoid making any unnecessary noise, as though anxious of rousing the disapproving glare of a priest, mid-sermon. The venue is lit perfectly. Although candle light isn’t used, it feels like it is.
A dim, flickering intimacy pervades the space. If not quite funereal, it’s a mood obviously quite uncommon to the average music venue. Purple and blue shots of light beam into tall, overhanging arches. Smiles and a smattering of giggles in anticipation of Laura Veirs’ arrival remind everyone that music-loving and not god-fearing is the reason why this chapel is filled to bursting on a cold Wednesday night.
The Oregon-based native’s seventh album July Flame helps to generate some much-needed warmth. It is one of those paradoxical releases. Born in an American summer and unveiled to a British audience in the depths of a miserable winter, it’s hard not to form slightly unhelpful and confusing seasonal associations; though, ironically, the album’s folky propinquity means its warmhearted summer tales can feel more like crackling log fires for cold Decembers and Januarys.
Thanks to (the unfortunately not-in-attendance) Jim James of My Morning Jacket, tracks like I Can See Your Tracks and Make Something Good possess more of a haunting chill than a fiery core. Members of Veirs’ support band harmonise in James’ absence, filling the chapel with drawn out choral flourishes that feel weirdly appropriate, given the surroundings. Eric Anderson, Nelson Kempf and Alex Guy deserve credit for their respective performances. As is the case so often now, each musician casually swaps roles, as though bored with the mundanity of only playing one instrument with distinction.
Veirs is in pretty good form too, considering she is due to give birth in April. Her self-conscious jokes about her weight belie the fact that touring and performing live wouldn’t be high up on the to-do lists of most women in her condition. As she battles with the strange tunings that are a feature of July Flame, she cajoles the audience into lighthearted Q & A sessions. Veirs coyly responds “21” to a cheeky enquiry about her age, adding “That’s right, seven albums since the age of 11.” After the break she returns emboldened, asking “Why am I ashamed about being 36?” Dressed in a polkadot dress and cowboy boots, Veirs looks pretty good for it, even with the bump of the impending new arrival visible just below the ridge of her acoustic guitar.
Like the album, Veirs’ live performance illustrates the strength and tenderness of her voice. At times it soothes, at others its shrill pierces. Similarly, Veirs’ lyrics have a propensity to lovingly cradle or jar, almost like Veirs is aware that her preference for the sweeter and more innocent side of folk needs to be reined in on occasion. Seven albums in, it’s clear that Veirs is mastering her art. I Can See Your Tracks, When You Give Your Heart and Sleeper In The Valley are lovingly-crafted folk songs and among the best that will be heard this year.
A sold out crowd’s warm applause and excitable whistles greet the performer’s final bows. Looking around, it feels like another indication that today’s music really is yesterday’s piety.