St. Pancras Old Church – October 9
Kate Bush wasn’t the only elusive, cult female musician looking forward to a heroine’s welcome this year. Vashti Bunyan’s brace of rare, intimate shows at London’s St. Pancras Old Church were her first live appearances in the capital for six years and, in support of the newly released Heartleap longplayer, her first in nine (and only her third since 1970), these shows, like Kate’s, were palpably special even before the doors had opened. The murmuring crowd congregating around the rain-splattered church felt more like an expectant gathering preparing for some rare natural phenomenon than a mere queue for a gig. Inside, it was hard to imagine a more unassuming stage set up. No banner, no coloured lighting or visuals, just two antiquarian-style chairs and a handful of domestic desk lamps placed in front of the altar.
When Bunyan took the stage, accompanied by fellow guitarist Gareth Dickson, people were sitting in the aisle, lining the walls and huddled at the back. “Hope you’re alright”, she whispered shyly into the microphone before opening a career spanning set with ‘Here Before’, from 2005’s ‘comeback’ album Lookaftering. Bunyan’s vocal delivery, breathy and fragile, commanded rapt silence; on record, her singing is close and mid-tone heavy, here it took on another characteristic entirely, echoing spectrally around the room. Unapologetically allowing the idiosyncrasies of natural speech rhythms to come through, it was as if each line came afresh to Bunyan as she uttered it.
The title track from 1970’s Just Another Diamond Day proved a set highlight, with its characteristically hypnotic pentatonic themes. “This song was actually used on a commercial” admitted Bunyan, “and I know that a few people were upset with me for allowing that to happen. But, when I was 18 or 19, and trying to find a manager to help me with my songs, they all just patted me on the head and said, ‘my dear, you’re just not very commercial’, so….” Heartleap’s cut ‘Across The Water’ provided another standout moment, as did Train Song – perhaps better known to some as covered by Feist and Ben Gibbard for the 2009 charity compilation Dark Was The Night.
The lightest of reverb on Bunyan’s shy vocals integrated seamlessly with the natural acoustics of the church, and, added to the immaculate, harp-like interplay between the two guitars, the effect was mesmerizing and the reverent audience placed a premium on every chord and vocal inflection. Applause was almost reluctantly broken into between songs, as if marking the periodic waking from a kind of collective daze.
Dreamy, all encompassing and occasionally downright ethereal it may have been, but, as with Kate Bush in a more capacious, if less venerable venue several miles to the west, this was a masterclass in how to capture and hold a room.
– WILL STOKES