Sitting in the pews of Brighton’s St Mary’s Church, the impact that a venue can have on the sounds perceived by the audience is made startlingly obvious. The venue tonight plays host to Julie Byrne and Nadia Reid, two of modern folk’s sharpest songwriters. When I saw the latter at her last Brighton show (reviewed here), it was in a small, crowded room with a low roof and enough sweat in the air to make it feel like a sauna. There was a definite buzz to that show but Reid’s set tonight serves to highlight just what an impact the context can have on the performance. With its almost astonishingly high arched roofing and spacious, sprawling floor plan, natural reverb certainly isn’t in short supply in this church tonight; and the undeniably tranquil setting lends itself to both a quieter (though no less appreciative) audience, as well as a wholly different mood to Reid’s performance.
Joined as per her previous UK shows by Sam Taylor on electric guitar and a touch of keys, Reid’s live sound has always been more stripped back than her studio records, the often minutely finessed detail and heart of her songwriting only made more apparent by the removal of extra instrumentation. Tonight’s performance is given a thoroughly unexpected new dimension through the gargantuan washes of natural reverb that fill the room. Where her shows in more conventional venues tend to have focused, tight sound, her 50 minute set tonight is more spacious and ultimately more powerful for it. It’s a sonic trait that Reid and Taylor play up to; their performances are relaxed – nonchalant, even – and, although at the best of times her music rarely goes beyond the understated in terms of force, tonight’s performance is noticeably more stately than the one she put in during her last stop at Brighton. The airiness and naturally crystalline ambience of the venue’s sonics lend themselves well to Reid’s individual strand of songwriting, the all encompassing warmth of the musicality serving as a potent counterpoint to her more grounded, clear-eyed lyrical bent.
The same can also be said of Jim Ghedi’s set; although opening the show, he pulled in a good sized audience and it’s not at all hard to see why. A real talent on the guitar, it’s his stringwork that really dazzles during the 35 minute set. Although he does sing – and powerfully, at that – it’s the lengthy instrumental stretches that really shine, his often chiming guitar work bring to mind the likes of Jack Rose and Daniel Bachman, the interplay between Ghedi and the upright bassist he shares the stage with likewise reminiscent of the iridescent instrumental duelling of John Martyn and Danny Thompson. Ghedi’s set is deeply rooted in UK and American folk, both of the traditional and the more contemporary (that is to say, ’60s onwards) varieties – and he articulates his influences with style and gusto.
When Julie Byrne takes the stage, a precedent atmosphere has already been set. Where Ghedi traded in rich, simmering harmonics and Reid let the gargantuan ambience of the room dictate the pace of her songs, Byrne’s music already has an almost panoramic, voluminous grace to it on record. When situated in the centre of a huge church, however, the generous helping of pedal reverb intermingles with it’s natural counterpart in such a way that the end results are both spellbinding and immense in tone. Even in the studio, Byrne’s songs glide with an ethereal smoothness; fingerpicking (especially on set opener ‘Sleepwalker’) is propulsive but never raw and her vocals, too, are stunningly melodious but never overwrought, despite the considerable heft of the emotional expulsions often presented through her songs.
It’s a salient mixture of melody and atmosphere and one that rightfully leaves the sold-out crowd in dead silence throughout Byrne’s set. Between songs, she’s as softly spoken as her music but she holds the attention of her audience seemingly effortlessly. When her songs are complimented by warm, bubbling synthesizer – as they are throughout much of her 50 minute set – it’s to the benefit of the glowing atmosphere; her guitar chimes with a precision possibly belied by the sheer weight of the reverb in the room but the cosy synth pads only add to the surging overtones. It’s a mixture that works well, so much so that when Byrne puts down her guitar and sings backed only by keys – as she does on the superb closer ‘I Live Now As A Singer’ – it’s a set highlight.
Tonight’s show is a fantastic example of every possible parameter being perfectly aligned; the three artists on the bill complemented each other excellently, representing different strengths within what could broadly be described as the same genre. The venue itself stands as a key player, too, with the ringing overtones and bolstered sonics lending a warm familiarity to tonight’s proceedings. Alternative folk is booming right now and, with so many great figures in the movement, it takes a lot to stand out. Not only are the three artists on tonight’s bill fantastic, talented players but also ones that represent some of the most interesting figures in the current folk scene.