Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pat Dam Smyth at St Pancras Old Church, 11th April 2014

The dead of Old St Pancras are restless.  Hundreds of years ago they laid their heads down for the last time.  Or so they thought.  Then along came tomorrow,  it made demands for space, efficiency and time.  The Victorians were boldly marching towards a  industrial future and the girders of St Pancras station began to loom out of a foggy sky.  In its way lay seven thousand sleeping Londoners, accreted Georgian, Stuart, Tudor and Elizabethan dead. They had to be gotten rid of and despite a public outcry they were quickly and unceremoniously exhumed from the churchyard and haphazardly heaved into a gaping pit under the railway line. In a bizarre twist the person charged with organising this mess was a young Thomas Hardy. He found being a dustman of corpses naturally rather traumatic, later writing:

"O passenger, pray list and catch 
          Our sighs and piteous groans, 
Half stifled in this jumbled patch 
          Of wrenched memorial stones!
"We late-lamented, resting here, 
          Are mixed to human jam, 
And each to each exclaims in fear, 
          'I know not which I am!'

The Levelled Churchyard - Thomas Hardy

Hemmed in by cars on one side and trains on the other, Old St Pancras cuts a lonely, yet  still dignified figure.  Legend has it that the Romans built a temple here, then the Normans on top of that, then the Tudors on top them, then Victorians and finally, after the Luftwaffe had had their way with London post-war architects added the finishing touches.  Today jagged cracks run across the plaster of walls bristling with important (and bearded) dead men. I suppose after it's been through so much any building will pick up a few scars - so with an eye on raising a bit of dough to fix this up they're hosting concerts.

And that's where I come in. Last night this holy place became even more holy, the nave not ringing with theology, but with an acoustic boom of folk and ramshackle rock and roll. On the bill were Mick O' Regan, Mark Harrison, Winspear & William and, headlining, Pat Dam Smyth.

Mick O'Regan
There's something fundamentally reassuring about a church full to the rafters with music. Walking into the room like this and seeing a lone man clutching an acoustic guitar, plaintively singing tender songs to an attentive crowd feels genuinely spiritual.  This was Mick O'Regan, and if you looked up 'folk singer' in the dictionary I'm pretty sure you'd find a picture of him.  Acoustic guitar, check. Harmonica holder, check. Blue jeans, white shirt and black waistcoat, check.  Song about Woody Guthrie, check.  I guess if you're going to do something do it right, and anyway, he cuts an elegant man-out-of-time figure up on stage.

Mark Harrison
Next is Mark Harrison. His best song is a short and pointed number about a man named Greenwood LeFlore.  He was a mixed race Choctaw in the mid 19th century, and having risen to a position of authority within his tribe, worked hard to negotiate a settlement of land for his people.  Displaying considerable talent in realpolitik he recognised that fighting against European settlement was like trying to push back the tide.  So, with this half European heritage and Western education he negotiated a decent, if pragmatic, agreement.  With this under his belt he went on to become a US Senator - a sort of race relations success story right?  Well after that he went on to become a slave owner in Mississippi.  The moral? History is mixed up and complicated and life rarely conforms to a narrative.  Harrison spins this tale well, and I appreciate a bit of a history lesson in my music.

Next up are Winspear & William, though they're soon joined by a flautist.  After gentle acoustic numbers it's a relief to hear something with a bit of boom to it.  The two sing in close, rising harmonies that perfectly reverberate around the room.  Sat at the front I felt the air in my lungs quivering in time. Props have to go to the guy on the sound desk for making this all sound so good, and, I guess to the groups of various architects through time who designed the room. 

Winspear & William
I was having a pretty good time by this point. I guess sitting in a church listening to gentle acoustic folk isn't exactly the craziest thing I could be doing on a Friday night, but every note did its bit to wash away the grub and grime of the working week. But things were about to kicked up to a whole new level.  I've never seen Pat Dam Smyth before so I didn't know what to expect. They're a band dislocated from time, one as fun to listen to in the 1960s as they'd be if they played in the 2060s.  When you go to a lot of gigs it's easy to take for granted how hard playing an instrument and performing is.  But here it was at the forefront of my mind; the band coming across less as rock stars and more as expert craftsman - taking the same pride in their carefully constructed work as a master carpenter would in a perfect chair.

Pat Dam Smyth
The undisputed highlight of the whole night for me was their cover of Willow's Song from The Wicker Man.  My knee-jerk reaction was to read this as a miniature act of subversion - singing a pagan song smack dab in the middle of a church.  But I quickly softened - whatever atrocities are committed in the name of God and Church it's difficult to see them in the warmly, crumbling homeliness of Old St Pancras.  The song, a paean to female sexuality, felt bizarrely appropriate here - the rural imagery of the song having far more in common with greenery and old stones than with the electric buzz outside the churchyard gates.   Anyway, the building itself seemed to give consent, chiming out its churchbell as the clock struck 11, the architecture working itself gently into the composition.  With the building perspiring with history and the graveless ghosts of old London sitting patiently in the aisle there was a centred feeling that all was right with the world.

Anyway, I absolutely adore The Wicker Man, so this was the cherry on a delicious cake for me. And at just £5 entry and £3 for beers a cheap cake too.   If the other gigs in this series are as good as this I may well come back.

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