It’s the final Saturday night in November and the usually sedate grounds of the Church of St John-at-Hackney are a hive of activity. The beautiful Grade-II listed building is playing host to a very different kind of congregation as part of its second year supporting the Little Noise Sessions in aid of Mencap (formerly held at the similarly spectacular Union Chapel in Islington.) The Sessions are a series of gigs which raise funds to aid Mencap in supporting those affected by learning disabilities, including the sister of the irrepressible curator Jo Wiley. It is certainly an admirable cause and one which is, unfortunately, more urgent than ever as the age of austerity has disproportionately affected such vulnerable groups just as the vital services supporting them are cut back. Tonight is the penultimate Session of a week which has seen acts as diverse as Richard Hawley, Olly Murs and Gary Barlow (whose reported tax-avoidance could surely pay for much-needed services) come to this sleepy Church in Clapton. The venue looks resplendent in red drapes and the scent of mulled wine hits you as soon as you enter. This, combined with the hugely amiable audience, creates an inescapably-festive atmosphere.
This is fitting as Noah and the Whale are celebrating the final night of an 18-month tour in support of 2011’s Last Night on Earth, their third and most successful album to date. It saw the band decisively throw off the ‘one-hit wonder’ tag which had followed them since 2008’s chirpy breakthrough 5 Years Time – a song which they seem reluctant to perform these days (and absent this evening) bringing to mind the ‘complex’ relationship Radiohead have with their first hit, Creep. Nonetheless, the Springsteen-esque Americana of much of Last Night on Earth is perfectly suited to a Saturday night gig and the band bound on stage to launch into the rapturous Tonight’s the Kind of Night. It is the perfect beginning, its positive message of possibility perfectly suited to the cause and its description “the night outside is five below, the moon is in the sky” tailor-made for this Wintery intimacy.
The band is in great spirits: relaxed, happy and the sometimes-awkward singer Charlie Fink is (by his own standards, at least) friendly and talkative. He speaks of putting together a ‘special set’ for tonight and with second song Give a Little Love imploring us to “give with your heart” it’s easy to see what he means. The band’s violinist Tom Hobden is particularly vivacious, displaying a wide grin for most of the set which surely is in part due to the startling success of his arrangements for the three-man string section which accompanies them.
L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. provided the band’s second top 20 hit and it predictably goes down a storm, the crowd’s euphoric singing seeming particularly apt in this environment. Yet if the singles from the recent album prove popular, the trio of songs from 2009’s astonishing The Last Days of Spring prove too downbeat for much of the assembled and attentions drift. Still, the title track of that album manages to win most over with its captivating climax where the band’s passion and power shine through.
The experience of playing these songs live has almost certainly fed into the new songs given an airing this evening. Both take the populism of Last Night on Earth and ramp it up, with Heart of Nowhere’s propulsive guitar sounding meatier and more instant than anything Noah and the Whale have previously done. Charlie introduces Lifetime as being a song made for ‘having a good time’ and its first line, “We got high 1000 times”, says it all. It’s an instant crowd-pleaser with the chorus being sung back at the band by its second airing. A new album is promised within months and, on the strength of these songs, it’s sure to continue the band’s commercial rise.
The Little Noise Sessions always feel unique and tonight found a perfect-match between cause and a band who skilfully imbue populism with warmth and romance. After an hour Noah and the Whale leave with a wave and people stumble contentedly out into the pretty Church grounds. It’s cold, the moon is in the sky and the night is a triumph.