Here for a Sonic Cathedral audience with Slowdive and Mojave 3 lynchpin Neil Halstead, it seems slightly odd to be enjoying a plastic cup full of warm white wine, poured from a box, in the ornate, breathlessly beautiful surroundings of St Giles-in-the-fields or, as it now is, among-the-office-blocks.
People are seated in pews, backs straight, heads fixed upwards looking at the vast ceiling, delicate stain-glassed window and gold cross that is positioned just above the altar on which support act Gravenhurst, aka Nick Talbot, is tuning up.
In fact, tuning up is what he seems to do for most of his 40 minute set, which becomes slightly frustrating because when he does settle his layers of guitar feedback mix with the surroundings to chilling effect. He also offers a handy introduction to tonight’s headline act by claiming, slightly gingerly, to have been buying his records for the past 20 years. It’s a claim that seems wholly disingenuous, seeing as he himself looks all of 14 years old.
When Halstead arrives, bearded and crumpled yet tanned and youthful, you wonder if the altar doesn’t posses some kind of anti-aging abilities. He soon proves to be the epitome of easy-going charm. After a solo Martha’s Mantra he’s joined by another guitarist and bass player, the three of them sat around a glowing red light that pulsates, casting huge shadows onto the walls behind. He jokes that it’s like being stuck in some kind of mobile disco and asks politely for the lights to be dimmed, creating a campfire effect in-keeping with his mellow, delicately plucked songs. During Oh! Mighty Engine, the title track from his second solo album, people congregate towards the front of the aisle, sitting cross-legged or laying down.
The lighting is still an issue, however, and a song is scrapped midway through as Halstead struggles to even see his guitar. He’s not being demanding or difficult and laughs it all off whilst the sound engineer turns the red light to a more workable blue. Unfortunately, the change in lighting means we can no longer see his face or his hands on the guitar, or pick out anything much other than the outlines of their bodies. They start to resemble holograms, projected onto the altar like ghosts.
Luckily, Halstead doesn’t let it affect him and he raises a laugh whilst introducing the blaspheming Sometimes The Wheels, complete with lyric “…the big JC, who the fuck is he?” It’s a song about feeling out of step, getting lost amidst passing fads, and is wholly appropriate given the setting, his career and his simple acoustic songs. There’s a timeless quality about his voice, an instrument that has an uncomplicated, earthy feel to it, but one tinged with melancholy, similar to that of Evan Dando. It’s used to devastating effect throughout, be it on the violin-assisted A Gentle Heart, the lovely High Hopes or the desolate Mojave 3 track Between The Bars.
There’s one new song played tonight, and it’s about a rabbit. Halstead tells the story of its creation in his slightly rambling, polite way, telling us how he followed this rabbit in his car for about 20 minutes before it ran off. He admits the story isn’t very interesting, it was just something he observed. “That’s what songwriters do,” he says. Not all songwriters do it as well as he does though.