The dramatic St Pancras Old Church has long-standing musical connections, quite apart from the choir’s singing during the weekly Sunday morning mass. Composers Johann Christian Bach, John Danby, Stephen Paxton, Carl Friedrich Abel and Samuel Webbe are interred there and in the present day, the building hosts several live music performances each week. The rectangular nave lacks the usual pews but instead has independent wooden seating, while the slightly raised chancel serves as a suitable stage for the visiting musicians to set up.
During May 2015, the event’s promoters announced that the first winner of their Laurel Canyon Music Award was Minnie Birch, who would receive financial support for her debut album as well as a gig at the venue, one of her favourites. And so Minnie opened the evening. Accompanying herself with only a tambourine, her strong voice echoed around the church as she began her set with a slow blues that cleverly contrasted Sycamore Sykes’ Make Me Clean (A Little More Water) with Blind Willie Johnson’s God Moves on the Water. While Sykes’ lyric views water as a cleanser of sins, Johnson’s recalls its grave danger to the Titanic’s passengers. Wiser-the-second-time-around love song Hatches was introduced by a rhythmically pulsing guitar as Minnie pleaded to have her battened hatches broken down with ‘Oh, won’t you come lead me astray?’ Beautifully sung bittersweet account of a cooled love affair Glitter represented this year’s debut album Floundering and a subtle, slowly picked emotional guitar provided the backdrop for the last song, which may be titled We Found Each Other. Minnie Birch’s aim is to make her audience happy with sad songs; she surely hit the target with her contemporary folk-blues tales.
It was fortunate that Kelly Oliver had an evening off from her stint as Thea Gilmore’s tour support, so like Minnie, she could make her first appearance at the Old Church. Opening with the just-released single Miles to Tralee (recently premiered on Folk Radio UK), which related the story of Kelly’s grandmother who left her Irish hometown for London, where she married and perhaps longed to one day return home. Kelly played a chugging, jangling guitar reminiscent of Billy Bragg’s early work – but far less harsh. Based on the biblical story of destruction by the Israelites, the indie-pop Jericho was the first single from Kelly’s second album, which is due in the spring. The song owes plenty to folk traditions as well as to modern influences and tells of a girl’s long wait for her lover to return from the battle. After taking us through the memorably melodic Diamond Girl and another single, the country-like Same World, The Witch of Walkern looked at an event that took place following what has wrongly become known as the last of the shameful witch trials, with the most traditional-sounding song of the set. Kelly signed off with a fine display of harmonica skills to match those on guitar and her lovely voice on Mr Officer, singing of the sorry fate of two boys at the hands of a corrupt police officer.
Although Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater played together on Ange’s most recent two albums and her autumn 2015 Along the Coleridge Way tour, this was their first public outing since they officially became a duo. Ange started with the gorgeous vocal loops of the unreleased Daughters of Watchet, which quickly moved on to the catchy whistle and chorus of My Captain, the first of two songs from her current album Esteesee (read our Featured Album Review). Lukas provided a bowed deep bass as he quoted Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Ange joined with a drum beat for a haunting take on The Curse of a Dead Man’s Eye. The tone was made all the more sombre by the perfectly timed chiming of the church’s bell, like a death knell at the song’s end. Sticking to the seafaring theme, Sailor’s Farewell recounted an elderly gentleman’s story of his mother never giving up hope that her husband would one day return from the sea. The amusing The Woolgatherer may have been written about Ange’s daughter’s daydreaming but its jaunty tune and sing-along chorus make it difficult to believe that it’s not an old folk song. It’s not often that true traditional songs are aired during her shows but there were two here: a harp and whistle version of The Trees they do Grow High was simply wonderful with Lukas’ subtly elegant guitar arpeggios and Ange’s unaccompanied She Moves Through the Fair sent shivers down the spine. Might is in the Mind began with a quoted snippet of one of Coleridge’s dinner table conversations before Lukas’ jolly, bouncy double bass started the song proper while Ange related the poet’s entertaining story of a fake ghost. Looped harp and vocals with bowed double bass enhanced atmospheric set-closer Esteesee, leading to an enthusiastically requested encore. For Ange’s own seasonal The Little Holly Tree, she and Lukas were joined by Minnie and Kelly, with the three providing backing vocals to Ange’s unaccompanied lead. It was the perfect ending to a very special evening of music.