We like a bit of folk in our house. Let me qualify that. When it is good, it can be very good. When it it is merely average, it gets boring very quickly. So a folk gig is high risk if it involves artist unknown. Take me to an average jazz gig – which happens pretty often – and I’ll probably find something to hold my interest. Average folk? I’d rather be in the bar.
But a quick sampling of Olivia Chaney on the internetz established this would be a low-risk outing. Trivial, maybe, but seemed important for the first gig of the year (not sure why it took so long), and after a disappointing – though bracingly expensive – evening from Bellowhead at Colston Hall on Dec 31st (First set: fine. Second set: Party time!, so too loud, and musically quite dull). And they have one of the best voices going with John Boden out front.
Nothing to be out front of here except the stage – this was all Chaney, with subtle accompaniment from time to time from Jordan Hunt on violin and vocals. Her voice really needs little beyond her own skilled guitar, piano and harmonium work. Such a voice! She’s a highly trained singer, you can tell – flexible, pitch perfect, rhythmically flawless. She’s also as expressive as you could wish. Comparisons with Sandy Denny have been made, and are not fanciful. OK, she’s not a genius songwriter like Denny (though Swimming in the Longest River and Imperfections come close). But the sound and presence are a match for anyone, with a melancholy edge to match June Tabor.
So her single set was basically a series of highlights. Old folk ballads, an early Dylan number from when he was imitating folk ballads, a brilliantly re-imagined bit of Purcell, a Chilean ditty, and a sprinkling of her own songs, closing with a vocal prayer, sung solo, front stage, without the mike (the other pair of ears heard shades of Emma Kirkby at this point, just to broaden the comparison!). All, of course, a perfect match for the St George’s acoustic, which exposes the voice, but allows the maximum possible appreciation of one as fine as this.
Here’s hoping this was the beginning of a a beautiful friendship between venue and artist, who seem so admirably suited. Newly signed to Nonesuch, she has a debut album in the making and we left in no doubt that she’s going to be a star. Next time, expect a full house and an audience who know all the songs. I’d order the CD now if I could. Risky? It would have been madness to miss this one.