Anyone familiar with the writings of Douglas Adams will have clocked Upper Street, Islington as the key London location of Arthur Dent when not traversing far-flung galaxies with his chums. The street is the base for London estate agent, Hotblack Desiato, whose name Adams pirated for the marvellously imagined rock star who allegedly spent a year dead for tax purposes. Its link with rock music continues as, among other music venues, it also houses Islington Assembly Hall, a grand Art Deco building lovingly restored to host 700-capacity concerts, along with conferences and civil ceremonies.
The elegant, high-ceiling Hall interior with its generously proportioned balcony and full width stage tonight saw Laura Veirs perform on the final night of her three-week tour across Europe. Despite the respectful surroundings there was something of a party atmosphere brewing and Veirs’ band mate, Alex Guy, appearing under her moniker of Led to Sea, opened proceedings with a suitably animated solo set. Setting up complex instrumental, rhythmic and vocal loops armed with just voice and viola, Guy wooed a deferential crowd with her dexterity and imagination. Laying some nimble viola solos and crisp vocals over her loops, Guy’s songs work structurally along similar lines to those of Imogen Heap. If there was one downside, it was simply that her skill in putting all this together took the focus away from an individual song’s message.
After a change of outfit, Guy was back on stage alongside Laura Veirs in a four-piece line up featuring guitarist/bassist Karl Blau and drummer Matt Berger. In a green dress and flat boots, with an alice band constraining her floppy blonde locks, the bespectacled Veirs may get justifiably sick of people saying she looks like a librarian (as if there was anything wrong with being a librarian). Yet tonight’s show saw the one-time geologist able to rock out with the best, even pulling some punk moves that recalled her early career brush with that genre. The set opened with the first cut from Veirs’ latest album, Warp & Weft, “Sun Song”, with the singer on acoustic guitar and Blau’s trebly electric lead giving the tune a harder edge than on record, accenting the change of seasons revealed lyrically.
The curse of the London music venue, the ubiquitous smoke machine, was back doing its worse, only adding anything more than a dull fog in odd moments when the centre spotlight created a scenic funnel of rising vapours. It scarcely dulled proceedings though as Veirs breezed through a set culled from four of her last five albums, spanning some eight years. The poignant “Shape Shifter” stood out for its string embellishments and a quite lovely instrumental break; Veirs adding a steely resolve in her shrill vocal. The mellow fruitfulness of Veirs’ 2010 album, July Flame, was represented with six cuts including the standout title song, here given a more fulsome, elemental treatment as Veirs switched to electric guitar and Guy moved to keyboards.
The set was punctuated by off-the-wall humor with dress-down Fridays, tour highlights, little incidents on the road involving Veirs’ six-month old baby, Oz, and T-shirt buying contests on the agenda. With Blau switching to bass for much of the second half of the set, the sound took on a richer hue to counter the venue’s thinner acoustics, while Veirs invited two young fans on stage to dance away behind her during “Rialto”. For all the fun of frequent asides to reinforce audience connection, though, it was the strength of Laura Veirs’ song catalogue that shone through. Each song was delivered with a genuine live dynamic, enhanced by Veirs’ increasingly dextrous lead guitar work and stagecraft. Pogoing, shaking her hair and symbolically ditching the alice band, falling down to her knees, wielding her Gibson, eliciting Neil Young-like feedback from her amp; the girl had it all.
It was hard to isolate highlights in such a solid set but Veirs capped a great performance with the passion of “America”, a sharp blast against her homeland’s gun culture, and the expansive, jazz-infused “White Cherry”. A tender solo encore of “Spelunking” (caving to you or I) followed by the singer laying down Franz Ferdinand style guitar licks in “Pink Light” and then taking a selfie of the band to tweet later. “That Alice”, the ode to jazz harpist Alice Coltrane intriguingly achieved through the medium of rock guitar, made a superb, life-affirming end to a triumphant evening and, no doubt, tour. I’m sure Arthur Dent would have rocked out to it in his pyjamas too.
Life is Good Blues
Make Something Good
Dorothy of the Island
I Can See Your Tracks