Tuesday, 24 June 2008

LIVE: Valgeir Sigurdsson , House of St Barnabas, Soho. Friday 16th May, 2008

Photo: Peter Corkhill

Crushed in between Oxford Street’s obnoxious shoppers, the hedonists of Old Compton Street and the theatre goers on Charing Cross Road, stepping into St Barnabas’ Chapel nevertheless has the affect of uprooting you from a Friday night in Soho and effectively reducing its bustle to a low, distant rumble. Inside the tiny chapel, a handful of fold-up chairs filled in for the pews, while candles lining the walls and banisters provided the only lighting: the atmosphere could not be more perfectly set for the gentle folk and electronica that followed.

First up was American folk singer, Sam Amidon, who played a generous amount of material from his recent, Valgeir Sigurðsson-produced LP, ‘All Is Well’. Joined by Sigurðsson himself, as well as a trio of female Icelandic musicians (seemingly framed alongside the altar’s murals of the Apostles), who would switch between accordions, bassoons, violas and a variety of brass instruments, the set was nothing short of captivating. Amidon sat at the front, sometimes plucking a guitar, sometimes a banjo, and despite the dark nature of some of his songs, spoke jovially to the audience. His confidence as a performer came out through a series of eccentric ticks: at one point between songs he spontaneously delivered a shrieking throat performance accompanied by odd gestures of his right hand. It went on for two minutes before he burst into laughter and such was his presence that you couldn’t help but laugh along. At another instant, he chose to “lope like a buzzard” during his performance of the cautionary ‘Little Johnny Brown’ which involved running and leaping through the audience and burning himself on some candle wax.

Alongside his more outlandish antics, he was also capable of incredible tenderness such as when he asked his friend ‘Dave’ to go up and provide and a hauntingly mournful backdrop of wails to ‘Wild Bill Jones’. Despite his warm tenor occasionally failing to reach his songs’ higher notes, Amidon set a very bar for Sigurðsson to follow, and alas it was one which he failed to match.

After the two effectively swapped positions (Sigurðsson to the front to play with his Mac and knobs and dials, Amidon to the back to sit in the corner banging a drum), the Björk producer played cuts from his excellent ‘Ekvílibríum’, replacing the album’s vocal contributions from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Dawn McCarthy with fragile instrumentation. The most bewitching effect of the night came from the audience’s participation during ‘Equilibrium Is Restored’: over the low, rumbling synths and meandering instrumentation, Sigurðsson instructed the crowd to breathe slowly and heavily giving the impression that some gentle wind was circling through the chapel, casting everything in a hypnotic haze. It was really quite stunning.

One got the impression that Sigurðsson is a bit of a perfectionist: throughout the set, he would sit in front of his Mac looking over the musicians as if the songs could sound better. While it is a commendable feature, his constant walk up to the switchboard did detract somewhat from the experience. Another slight niggle came from his almost lack of presence. Sure he was there, but the songs strayed only very slightly from how they sound on record and you could probably have played the songs straight from the album to achieve the same entrancing atmosphere. Being first and foremost a producer, he could be forgiven for this, but one can see the performance diminish considerably had the setting been any other music venue.

It was fitting then that Sam Amidon came back for vocal duties on the closer, ‘Baby Architect’; Sigurðsson is a wizard of musical composition, but this was really Amidon’s night.

Jorge Costa