Alela Diane’s set on her UK tour’s opening night draws largely from her latest piano-based album ‘Cusp’ along with songs from her 2009 gem, ‘To Be Still’. The Union Chapel, a functioning church in the heart of Islington, is a perfect setting for the quality of her work performed tonight in a trio format with Diane accompanied by gifted and polished multi instrumentation from Mirabei Peart and Heather Woods Broderick. They cover piano, flute and oboe, percussion and particularly violin and upright bass. They also provide wonderfully haunting echoic background vocals to counterpoise Diane’s dazzling singing.
Her voice is a captivating instrument, frequently heading into unexpected and delightful directions that the listener’s ear is not expecting. This is a feature on ‘Dry Grass and Shadows’, perhaps the most foot-tapping song on display tonight with the arresting lyrics of “a maze of children’s feet in orchard trees” and “all the star thistles stumble out”. Her songs frequently feature domesticity – bedrooms and lounges are described along with a “windowless room” – and are peopled largely by immediate family members, parents, partner and young children. The ‘Cusp’ album artwork features photos of Diane, her daughter, a kitchen chair and the family cat and she mentions early in the set that international touring paradoxically enables her to catch up on regular sleep as she is a fairly recent mother of her second child. Clearly motherhood dominates her thoughts and feelings and, with this, come frequent reflections about the passage of time whether respective thoughts as on ‘Albatross’, “looking back at what I left behind” or focusing on the present as she contemplates her growing baby inside her and then emerging into life when “time couldn’t move any faster” on ‘Wild Ceaseless Song’. She also ponders the future world her youngsters are growing into. Musically, the songs are somewhere in early Smoke Fairies territory, a compelling place to share.
She sang a new song in tribute to Sandy Denny – clearly a musical reference point for her – and her perspective is that Denny’s painfully early death, “younger than I am now” she says poignantly, left Denny’s very young daughter motherless. As she sings of her own daughter earlier in the set, “I’ll give her melodies”.
There was classy support from quintessentially English artist Olivia Chaney. An alumna of the Royal Academy of Music she was trailing her second album, ‘Shelter’, to be released in June, with a couple of tracks from her 2015 debut, ‘The Longest River’. The set was deeply rooted in English traditional music, timeless in its content and, mainly, its lyrics. Most songs have a strong sense of place whether a ‘House on the Hill’, the ‘Arches’ of a railway station, a holiday in Rome or a remote cottage on the north Yorkshire moors, the title track’s setting and where most of the album was written. She speaks ironically of the highly commercial aspects of her work as she heads into Henry Purcell’s ‘Oh Solitude,’ from the cutting edge of the 17th century and probably somewhere outlying on the Americana spectrum. The set closed with a brief electric guitar foray for an Offa Rex track, which Chaney had recorded with The Decemberists. Her next London headline is the album launch gig on June 19 at Hoxton Town hall. She was given great support on strings and piano from long-term collaborator Jordan Hunt.