Holly MacVe + Will Stratton, St John on Bethnal Green, London E2 – 6th April 2017

Holly MacVe is 21. She grew up in Ireland, Yorkshire and Brighton yet she creates lonesome country songs hewn from the bedrock of Hank, Emmylou, Joni, Tammy and KD along with that of Lana Del Rey. A few of the dates on her current tour are in churches, this one being a fine Sir John Soane Italianate example built in 1820 and still a place of worship. Americana music is rooted in the church, in gospel and blues and the country folk of the god-fearing Appalachians so musically everything is perfect here. Support act Will Stratton changed the lyric in one of his songs for the occasion. “When I wrote this I was a hard line atheist, but I’m not so sure now “, he says, and he leaves the song hanging, questioning. His voice evokes the soft longing of classic American folk and there are glimpses of Paul Simon, Nick Drake and James Taylor too. 

Holly MacVe appears to be steeped in references. Her world sounds like it’s 1961 when there are no video games and Americans are afraid of Russians, perhaps the influence of her grandparents’ record collection. The set is drawn from her debut long player and includes Corner of my Mind, the GarageBand recorded track that was her breakthrough. She performs Heartbreak, evocative of bored waitresses in deserted truck stops with the full band, but actually opens with two songs played solo, including the life affirming White Bridges. Tonight was a serious affair, not a night to abandon fear, rock out and climb up speaker stacks. The songs came to the fore. She has a knack for clever lyrics and cute rhymes (for instance on the song Shell).  She played one cover, We Don’t Know Where We’re Going which had me searching Spotify for Melanie’s 1972 album where it first appeared. She alternated between two acoustic guitars which she tended to strum with her thumb but on some songs, including the beautiful gospel-tinged title track, Golden Eagle, she played a de-badged keyboard, arguably a more successful musical grouping when combined with the drums, bass and slide guitar.

This type of gig is special but in a way demanding for artists having to contend with almost overpowering reverential silence. Stratton was grateful that the audience was absorbing some of the reverb and MacVe perhaps thanked us for coming just once too often. Similarly, for the crowd, whilst enjoying great acoustics it’s best just to tolerate difficult sight lines rather than throw contorted shapes to attempt to view the whole stage. However, with tickets at £10 a go and bottles of cold independent beer at Wholefoods prices it all makes for an economical night. So if you’re going to a Holly (or any other similar) gig in an inner city parish with an ageing congregation – throw a fiver into the church restoration fund at the end and make it worth it for all.



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