even the darkness is made of love / Union Chapel, 25.11.’11
We’ve just come in from standing outside in the cold for almost an hour. They said the doors would open at 7pm and we were there early, because we didn’t have tickets and were banking on still getting some on the door. Needless to say, they didn’t let us in till 7.30. Shortly before that, I was close to turning to my friend and saying: “You know what? Let’s forget it and go see a movie.” Of course I didn’t. And now we’re inside, I’m deeply grateful that I disregarded my numb feet and frozen face – this venue is one of the most amazing I have ever been in, if not the most amazing.
I sit in a wooden pew, near the front, in the middle, pretty much where you want to be. My friend has gone to get us two cups of hot tea. I can feel people streaming in from behind me, surrounding me, hushed chatter rolling around the octagonal room, while above us the wooden, carved ceiling arches high, guarding the silence. It feels special to be here, in a church, a holy space and the place where so many great artists have performed wonderful concerts before. The air hums with expectancy and very soon all the places are filled up, and while people still move about, there’s many who watch the stage, talking quietly to their friends and neighbours, waiting. Music is played softly over the speakers, Greg Brown’s deep voice singing some of his more melancholic songs, and others I don’t recognize.
Suddenly a girl walks on the stage, young, red hair in two braids. She picks up a guitar and whispers into the sudden silence “I’m This is the Kit” and starts playing. The first line intrigues me (“tonight we are the same age”), and the many repetitions heighten my anticipation, but unfortunately there is no resolution. For the second song she takes up a banjo and, most endearingly, asks one of her friends, that she thinks she has spotted in the audience, if he could play the guitar part for this song. He comes up to the stage and they play the song ‘Easy Pickings‘ together. The whole set lasts only a bit more than half an hour. Overall, I think that This is the Kit is a very young performer that still has quite some growing to do. I like her voice, I like the way she plays the guitar, I like the melodies and she seems a very sweet person, but her songs lack impact. The lyrics are unsatisfying and less of the ‘ooh’-ing could be an improvement. All in all, it was very pleasant to listen to, but none of the songs stand out, and after the last note has sunk, nothing has really stuck with me.
We have about half an hour now. Most people get up and mill about. My friend gets us a hot chocolate to share, while I scribble down some notes and impressions and enjoy the atmosphere. The sound system is trickling … well, I guess it’s music, but it sounds like a guitar being tuned. Whatever it is, it’s slow and quiet and hypnotic. We exchange opinions about what we’ve so far heard.
Then, suddenly, quietly and modestly, Alexi Murdoch walks on the stage, picks up a guitar and starts fiddling around with the technical equipment laid out on the floor of the stage. Still standing sideways to the audience, he starts picking the guitar and fine-tuning the loop pedals. Nothing can be heard in the hush of the chapel except his guitar and the weird guitar-tuning sounds coming through the loudspeakers. At a nod from Alexi, those stop and he turns fully to the audience and starts playing over the looping guitar.
I’m not a fan of long standing. I have known his name for a while, I’m in love with ‘All my days’ and I like the juxtaposition of his first and last name (one so Greek-Russian-orthodox, the other so Scottish-dour-correct), yet the very first song makes me tear up. I sit there, staring at this unpretentious young man who seems to effortlessly reach inside me and touch my innermost self. The music does not need to wind through my ears and my mind – his voice simply removes all outer layers and speaks directly to my heart. I try to film or take pictures, but I simply feel too emotional, too overwhelmed to be able to concentrate on something as mundane as that. It is as if he is singing exclusively to me, and from the absolute stillness around me, I think that he has the same effect on everyone else. This is the most intimate performance I have ever had the amazing luck to attend. He seems to be equally impressed, whispering into the microphone: “This place is amazing. Where did you find it? Where did you all come from?”, then segueing immediately into the next song.
I’m impressed with is his musical virtuosity – Alexi Murdoch changes between guitars, and between guitar and other instruments easily and smoothly. He plucks a violin like a guitar, he plays a beautiful little impression on the piano, he uses a hand organ, something I have never experience live, and he employs another instrument played with his hands, which is a total mystery to me and looks more like a toy than a serious instrument. All of it is done with grace and naturalness. If it weren’t for the fact that I am totally in awe of him, and trying to deal with the raw emotions coursing through me, I would certainly be developing a most serious case of fan crush right about now.
A recurring theme in his songs is the sea. And darkness. All the pictures he draws are somewhat dark and while they certainly aren’t light and joy-filled, they aren’t sad either. They are as inevitably honest and as unchangingly real as the coming of night at the end of the day, or the ebb and flow of the tide. The stunning setting that he performs in tonight adds to the depths of his words. The sensation is quite indescribable when his quiet voice reaches up to the ceiling of the chapel, soaring in this beautiful building with the words: “there is no God, there’s only love”.
He uses words with the same ease and lightness of touch that he uses his instruments. It seems to me that he writes songs the same way that the stonemason in the old story makes the statue of a lion by simply chipping away all the rock that doesn’t look like a lion. He seems to have a vision of what a particular song is supposed to sound like, and then takes away everything that is unnecessary until he reaches that sound. The fact that the songs still sound full and gorgeous and perfect is proof of his mastery.
On the records, his sound reminded me very much of Nick Drake – a certain quality of languid beauty, quiet desperation and overarching love is in both of them. Live, however, the songs are much starker, increasing the impact. There is no resemblance to Nick Drake left, instead I can hear a certain Irish-Celtic sound in some of the songs that I never noticed before. It’s not in his voice, but more in the way he sings. It gives the music a deep wealth of connotations.
Towards the end, he engages in more talk, saying that he isn’t sure how much time he has left and that he always thought this whole encore-thing “a bit of a sham”, but since it makes him feel good, he will now play the last song, “if you know what I mean”. This ‘last’ song finally topples me over the edge that I have been hovering on since the first line of the first song and tears are rolling down my cheeks and breathing has suddenly become hard, because my throat has closed up and I have only ever once before felt like sobbing my heart out while at the same time being so ecstatically happy that I feel as though every cell of my body will explode with it. I am being blessed by music.
During the encore he shows his kindness, including a song that he forgot to play at the very earnest-sounding request of a fan. It’s another stunningly beautiful song, and while the words of the fan thanking him (“Thank you. That was cool.”) seem to me extremely inadequate, the emotion is clear and he accepts the thanks with a little nod, before playing the encore he had planned.
When people are filing out of the chapel afterwards, I linger, unwilling to break the spell. Talking is hard. And there is no need for talk anyway. Everything has been said.