Thursday, 2 April 2009

Alela Diane @ St Giles Church 30/3/09

Gigs in churches are strange creatures, far removed from their bar-dwelling cousins. At times, live secular music in such an antiquated, unfamiliar setting can seem wilfully sacrilegious – at others, overly reverent. This evening, Alela Diane creeps onto the stage in St Giles so softly that it is only when she begins singing that the audience realises that it’s started, and a palpable hush descends immediately as her voice reverberates around the vaults. To say the acoustics in a place like this are unforgiving is an understatement: every minute mis-tuning and finger-stumble on the picked acoustic pierces the air, and no one talks in a church gig, so there is no disguising mistakes. Alela’s voice takes a little while to warm up, though she shows no physical signs of nervousness.

Her father, Tom Menig, joins her for ‘Age Old Blue’, and together they turn a simple double acoustic sound into something utterly spellbinding. Alela’s vocals verge on yodelling, both plaintive and oddly powerful. During her folkier moments that arresting voice could be the howling of a wolf, but in the delicate country twang of ‘Lady Divine’ or ‘To Be Still’ she sounds like the bluest whistle of a steam-train on a damp morning. So much of Alela’s music is cinematic, conjouring landscapes of pre-colonial America, when people lived in the valleys and trees. She looks almost like a Native American, too, and there’s no doubt that this otherworldliness goes some way to explaining her popularity in grimy central London at a time like this.

But of course it’s that voice that really steals the show, over and above her propensity for escapist musings. The set is organised crescendo-like, with a female vocalist, bassist and drummer joining her onstage for the bulk of it, and then disappearing off to let her close alone. ‘White As Diamonds’, the big single, comes off perhaps the weakest of the whole set – both hurried and clumsily executed, it bears the hallmarks of overplaying. Meanwhile a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Gold Dust Woman’ really works, and provides welcome respite in an hour-long performance that consists mostly of very similar folk and country arrangements.

Some material from her first album, The Pirate Gospel, is included. ‘Tired Feet’ seems especially appropriate this evening, Alela tells us, because it was written in Europe’s churches on her solitary travels. She also tells us that she’s that hers is the last gig to take place in St Giles. It seems like a fitting valedictory gesture for live music here, if that is the case. Both inadvertently jubilant and respectfully hymnal, Alela Diane’s music complements these majestic surroundings perfectly.

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