I’ve written before about Shelby Lynne. I shall again in the future, no doubt. Last Saturday, we went to see her. We’ve done this before, DP and I; I wrote about it last March (Christ! Last March! Time’s winged chariot and all that…).
This time, as Ms Lynne is now catering to a more selective audience, she performed at the Union Chapel in Islington. I’d been there once before for an entertainment, DP had been there for a conference. It’s a beautiful building, set slightly back from the self-regarding fashionality of Upper Street’s bars and those who frequent them, the few scant yards that may as well be a mile or more into the country, so much does the area change.
The thing is, the Union Chapel is just that; a chapel. And as a house of religion it has no facility to offer a reserved seat within its pews. So; we arrived just before the opening time of seven o’clock, saw there were twenty or so people queueing outside, and decided to get a quick drink in before entering.
One swift gin and tonic later, the queue stretched several hundred yards and our plan to go for dinner before the gig lay shattered like a piece of Lalique in the hands of an angry toddler.
So we went in. Took in the mouldings, and the roof carvings, and the sheer size of the pulpit, and wondered if anybody who’d played there had ever sung from it. We got ourselves some drinks and we bagged ourselves a couple of seats nine or ten rows back.
And, eventually, a very small slim woman dressed in grey came out from a door behind the stage, carrying a guitar. She connected it to the chapel’s PA system, and she started to sing. She sang most – possibly all – of the songs from her new album, Revelation Road. She sang them all with no other accompaniment except that one guitar. She told us stories about the songs, about who and what they were about. She sounded raw and honest and her voice was astonishing, direct, freed from fancy embellishments; freed by performing solo even from the need to consider other musicians who would constrain her. An Anti-Whitney.
About twentyfive minutes into this mesmerising evening, it struck me: every one of her songs was downbeat; not only following a leisurely tempo, but also a litany of misery, heartbreak, disappointment, loneliness… Actually, the thought that struck me was ‘For chrissake cheer up, love’.
This thought continued with the performance. When the Revelation Road songs were done, Ms Lynne surprised us – surprised me, anyway - by playing Jesus On A Greyhound from the maligned and neglected ‘New Dusty Springfield’ album Love, Shelby, which elicited a tiny, under-the-breath cry of surprise from me. She followed it with 10 Rocks from Identity Crisis, the nearest we’d get to an upbeat song despite its lyrics of damnation and pain. Then a stripped-down Your Lies, the first song of hers I’d ever heard, now shorn of the drums that had seemed so essential to it yet still absolutely stunning. Two more from Love, Shelby, which saw murmurs of appreciation rippling through an audience who beforehand had sat completely silent during the songs. Most of the I Am Shelby Lynne album, with a little story about Leavin’ thrown in. Audience participation during Where I’m From. Killing Kind and Tarpoleon Napoleon and Johnny Met June. Songs that had been drenched in strings and backing vocals and all manner of extraneous matter – but which sounded perfectly good despite that – were now reduced to bare chords strummed out of one guitar and the naked perfection of that voice.
She took off the guitar, and left. We clapped. She came back. She said thank you. Then she said ‘I know you wanna leave’; somebody shouted ‘no we don’t’, so she said “I can see it in your eyes’ and we realised she was starting to sing Pretend from Just A Little Lovin'. Just her. Just the voice, just a tiny blonde woman, standing dwarfed by the chapel pulpit, hugging herself as she sang, swinging one strangely long arm out to one side every now and then, and as I watched and saw the almost beatific look on her face, it hit me: no matter how downbeat the songs are, she has to sing them. They’re her. They’re her life, and singing them is what she simply has to do because singing is what brings her happiness. Right then, I couldn’t think of anybody I’d ever seen so happy.
Back on with the guitar, for the traditional show-closer Iced Tea, and she was gone.
We went back onto Upper Street, among the drunks and the staggerers, the badly-dressed and the desperate. We found a little Turkish place. She had cuttlefish, I had lamb.