Firefly Burning + Samantha Whates, St Pancras Old Church, London, 22nd May 2019

This ‘working’ church, in a small parkland oasis between Camden Town and Kings Cross, is a truly apt venue for this sort of music, Firefly Burning being described by some as a “minimalist avant-pop alt-folk ensemble.” The church’s elegant windows let in the sinking daylight and impending dusk with the set closing shortly after night has fully fallen. The band, fronted by lead vocalist Bea Hankey, are marking their 10th anniversary as a going concern as well as tying the gig into the imminent release of a new album, ‘Breathe Shallow’.

The new clutch of songs has taken some while to come to full fruition and the band are particularly praising of the Snape Maltings studio in Suffolk which hosted the recording. The band (Jack Ross – guitars and percussion, James Redwood – violin and mandolin, John Barber – piano, bass, synth, percussion and gender barung (look it up), Sam Glazer – cello) are a truly accomplished lot are led by Hankey’s charismatic chanteuse style. Kate Bush is maybe an easy reference point to her vocal style and range while comparisons can be drawn with the likes of Olivia Chaney and Kate Rusby.

The opening song, ‘Forgotten’, was a folk and classical music fusion showcasing Hankey’s voice and it was followed by the pacier ‘It Won’t Be Long’ with the cello leading along with a harmonised chorus. Their back catalogue was dipped into for the stirring ‘Pioneer’ from 2015’s ‘Skeleton Hill’ with its powerful wrought interplay between the instruments and vocals building to a sweeping crescendo, reminding one that their producer is Tim Friese-Greene whose CV covers the likes of Talk Talk and Catherine Wheel. The following song ‘Lost’ was in a similar vein although with a more overt and richly melodic approach with Hankey’s voice soaring over some wonderful stringed and keyboard arrangements. ‘Take Me There’ was announced as, “The closest we get to disco,” the lyrics including lines from German poet Rilke before his rarely acknowledged Saturday Night Fever phase was fully realised. It’s the most guitar-led track of the night framing the haunting refrain of “Take Me to the empty space”. As the title song of the new album, ‘Breathe Shallow’ was announced; the church bells chimed 10 o’clock as if in celebration of the song. The last song, ‘Beloved’, was perhaps the closest the set came to mainstream English folk before an encore of ‘Night Ocean’, a lovely hymnal number, the piano leading a triple harmonised vocal which is then carried away by wisps of strings.

Support was by Samantha Whates, who four years prior did the same role at the same venue albeit supported by crutches for a broken ankle. Playing solo and acoustic she has classic English folk influences. Highlights included ‘Trees and Gold’, a segmented track with lyrics alluding to personal growth, whilst ‘Sailors’ and ‘Guilty’ both described the needling annoyances of a relationship as a couple work their way through domestic tensions. Her set was given a deservedly supportive response from the capacity audience.

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