There’s no such thing as a free lunchtime gig. Exorbitant London travel costs, wallet-raping cups of coffee and the practically obligatory donation to the venue combined to ensure that I would be leaving the big city a decidedly poorer man. Add to this a humiliating but utterly self-inflicted accident with a bottle of water that rendered my camera, two library books and a just-out-of the-shop Christmas card useless and you’d be forgiven for thinking that any pre-Christmas spirit I might have arrived with would have ebbed away completely by the time I finally took a pew at Islington’s famous Union Chapel.
A stroke of fortune, then, that Collectress are the first act on the bill. Less a musical group and more an art project, they weave calming, partly improvised soundscapes from a piano, various strings, voice and found sounds, ably complemented by the creak and heave of the venerable old stage and the occasional bawls and tantrums of some of the younger members of the audience. Aspiring to be a visual as much as an aural package, the four-piece treat us at one point to what appears to be a silent rendition – actions only – of The Wheels on the Bus.
The laid-back attitude to mild experimentation extends to Lisa Knapp’s set: birdsong, wineglasses and plucked fiddle are her instruments of choice. She’s grounded, or rather underpinned, by the reassuring presence of long-term collaborator Gerry Diver, whose arrangements have adorned much of Knapp’s recorded output and whose playing is sympathetic and full of space. And space is necessary in this type of music, particularly in the traditional material: space where Knapp’s voice can exist in its delicate potency. She sings with a clarity reminiscent of Anne Briggs but more wide-eyed, more breathy and breathless.
In Beggar Beggar – a standout from debut album Wild and Undaunted – she somehow manages to sound simultaneously innocent, coquettish and wise. It’s partly the hint of naughtiness in this and the equally effective A May Garland that makes this form of expression real and relevant – these are songs of experience and the experiences in them are universal and knowingly depicted.
Knapp’s self-written material is effective for different reasons. There u r showcases the outer limits of her voice, and Diver’s arrangement places it in an almost haunting context particularly suited to the venue. The Shipping Song is a patient meditation based almost entirely around the names of shipping forecast zones. It works, although every time I hear the word ‘Dogger’ I giggle like a schoolboy ? and today is no exception.
After a disappointingly short set from Knapp, the afternoon’s entertainment is rounded off by a motley handful of Highline Records acts performing songs from their new seasonal compilation, Festivus. Highlights include Skiffle and the Piffles and The Birthday Kiss, whose Sentimental Christmastide is enough to dispel any lingering Scrooge-like tendencies, in me at least.
Words: Thomas Blake