Live Review: Thea Gilmore + Matt Owens at The Union Chapel, Islington

Exiting the mindless hell of Upper Street to the ethereal peace of the Union Chapel is the kind of contrast that is rather hard to comprehend. One moment you’re dodging cars, motorbikes, human beings on electric scooters, and the next you’re sat in arguably London’s most picturesque venue, taking in the serenity that surrounds you and staring up to the high ceilings as a wall of soft sound washes over you. On this Tuesday evening, it’s the sound of Thea Gilmore, hot on the heels of the release of her latest album Small World Turning. With a long and distinguished career behind her, she has built up a dedicated audience of followers who sing along throughout this calming concert. The effect, inside the Chapel, is one that the writer couldn’t help but be drawn into. This sense of community, that emerges throughout the set, in songs like ‘Live Out Loud’ and ‘The Revisionist’, is likely reinforced by the fact that we’re inside a church, where choral singing and mass participation is one of the cornerstones of spiritual worship. The old adage ‘when you sing, you pray twice’ seems fitting here. Gilmore’s creations are given an extra emotional weight by the breathtaking sound at the Union Chapel.

Prior to her set, ex-Noah and The Whale band member Matt Owens ran us through his take on Americana, in a set that seemed more inclined to anecdotal posturing than any real musical ingenuity. After referencing, for the third time, that his initial tours around America had cost the band ‘50,000 quid’, it started to feel that we were less at an Owens concert and more at a trip through the cliche ‘rock and roll’ life. When he stops attempting to impress the audience with tales of far too much drinking and strips back to the root of his songs – poignant reflections on a life lived at high speed – there is something to admire. ‘The Piano at the Greyhound’ stands out, but only that it steps away from the rather pastiche sound of the three chord country (G Major – C Major – D Major – repeat) that dominates the rest of the set. When he later joins as part of Gilmore’s band, his smooth bass lines drift delicately through her competent writing and here he seems more comfortable.

Gilmore’s audience hangs on her every word, and over the course of the 16 or so songs she plays, there is never a moment where they are not captivated. She commands the crowd with aplomb, bringing them onto her side as she bemoans the state of the world, though she does acknowledge that she said the same a few years ago and we’re all still here, so perhaps it’s not as bad as it may seems. At the shows conclusion, ‘Karr’s Lament’ plays out and the crowd dutifully sing along. Once again I am reminded of mass – of togetherness, of mutual understanding. Thea Gilmore played a set that made you feel as though you were standing right next to her, singing her songs with her, right there on that stage. The beauty of the setting, coupled with the angelic nature of her voice, did make it feel as though we were breaking into the ethereal. Such is her continued growing popularity, you wonder how much longer you’ll be able to catch her in such intimate settings.

Review and photography by Alexander Sarychkin:


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