Gigs are pretty special at the best of times, but, occasionally, you get the chance to see someone mega in a place that’s small, ambient, weird and wonderful. This is one.
The Little Noise Sessions for Mencap have been putting on such gigs for a few years now and, last year, moved from Islington’s Union Chapel to the Church of St John-at-Hackney. What’s special about St John’s, and different to Union Chapel, is that this is still a church first and a venue second. One day there’s Gary Barlow, the next there’s zumba! On arrival, we see clergymen in dog collars checking out their patch, making sure everything’s okay and, hopefully, looking forward to some tunes.
Tonight is a very special line up with headliner Richard Hawley no stranger to the Little Noise Sessions, having played a few years back with special guest Alex Turner.
There’s a different feel to his set tonight, which follows in the different mood to his latest, Mercury-nominated album, 'Standing at the Sky’s Edge'. It’s louder, it’s edgier, it’s more of a band performance than Hawley strumming his acoustic interspersed with some good chat (oh, and Hawley always has good chat).
With the church filled with smoke, Hawley’s guitar unleashes screeches and screams of reverbed notes, echoing off every pillar and stained glass window like a gig in a giant swimming pool. It’s a huge sound, lifted to dizzying heights by his superb band.
Hawley’s guitar takes the place of the messiah tonight. "This is a 1963 Rickenbacker played by a 1967 geezer singing songs written in 2012," Hawley exclaims, looking every inch the vintage rocker in his '60s leather jacket.
His album’s title track is epic and captivating while ‘Don’t Stare at the Sun’ - a song apparently inspired by flying a kite with his son… on acid – has his audience swaying with eyes closed, engrossed in the psych harmonies and marching drums. There’s little left of Hawley the crooner here.
That’s not to say his back catalogue is dismissed. ‘Tonight the Streets Are Ours’ from 'Lady’s Bridge' and ‘Open Up Your Door’ from 'Truelove’s Gutter' get rapturous applause from a crowd who may prefer his older stuff to the new rockier direction.
‘Down in the Woods’ ends the main set, easily trickling into ten minutes, as many of his songs did tonight, but he’s brought back by stomping feet to play ‘The Ocean’ from 'Coles Corner', a beautiful song met with massive appreciation, although slightly missing its easy listening roots among such guitar frenzy.
But, of course, the night wasn’t all about Hawley. Sweden’s lushously-mained sisters First Aid Kit, joined by pedal steel legend BJ Cole, brought some of their favourite songs to the mix from their last couple of albums and EPs.
Their harmonies were as perfect as ever and their playing, despite some occasionally nasty keyboard sounds, was simple and without fault. Being joined by a band instead of just the two voices and their instruments padded out their sound but, actually, lost a little of their folky wonder.
However, ‘America’ was loud, stark and great and ‘Emmylou’, a song about their inspirations, was sweet and twee for all the right reasons. These girls are slowly becoming the Swedish lady version of Fleet Foxes, with the intricate harmonies to boot belted out – slowly, because they’ve been playing since they were just kids, but are suddenly getting the crowds and recognition they deserve.
Then there was King Charles, big hair piled on top of his head, weasel moustache adorning his top lip. He’s cool, but a great talent too, bringing his Vampire Weekend-esqe blend of surf pop, West Coast and folk with a London edge and a twinge of the power ballad.
‘St Peter’s Gate’, ‘Mississippi Isabel’ and ‘Love Lust’ were wholeheartedly welcomed by his fans, but it was a shame more people hadn’t turned up for this first set of the night – they missed out.
Words by Gemma Hampson