Rachel Zeffira - St Andrew's Church, Holborn 18/10/12
There is a feeling you get when you walk into a church; an atmosphere that is embedded in its very nature. Religious or not, you feel like you have to be quiet or you might upset God or Jesus or someone. It is in essence then, strange that a church would be used for a 'modern' gig. Music in churches has generally tended to be reserved for classical or sacred music; however there has been a real trend in recent years of contemporary artists (especially singer-songwriter/folk music) of performing in churches. The benefits of playing in this environment are obvious. The acoustics are the closest you will find to a classical concert hall, yet smaller and more easily accessible. The reverb that can be garnered can be astounding, yet if you make a mistake then everything is amplified to the nth degree. And one thing is for certain - people will be listening. You're not likely to get the drunks at the bar paying no attention to what's going on onstage here, and for most, this is very attractive. For some gigs, a different/holy setting like this can't be bettered, and tonight was a great example of that.
Tom Williams, main man in Tom Williams and the Boat opened the night performing a solo set of folk(y) songs. This performance was unlike much of his recorded work with 'the boat', notably quieter and arguably more heartfelt. His often picked acoustic guitar intertwined with spacious melody lines, his rich vocal taking the forefront, bouncing off the walls of the church and throwing back some wonderful reverb. His performance was subtle and the audience gave Williams the attention that his talent deserved. A great start to proceedings.
Rachel Zeffira, in case you didn't know, is one half of Cat's Eyes with Faris Badwan from The Horrors. Their album from last year was quite obviously very thought-out and what could be described as a nostalgia project. It was big on orchestral arrangements and full of sweet melodies. Tonight's gig informed us of the parts of the album that were more Zeffira than Badwan.
Described often as a 'composer', Zeffira's set could be viewed as heralding classical music's sounds and ideas whilst at the same time being very current. For example, her 'band' (a stripped back orchestra) took to the stage in the same way that an orchestra would before the conductor. They tune up to the soloist's piano, all dressed in black and sit patiently, the audience almost ignoring them. The lights go out and from out of nowhere, behind us, in the rafters the sound of the church organ playing a fast motif is heard. The audience turns and there is Zeffira, sitting and playing. Alongside her adding percussion is Melissa Rigby and Bradley Baker of the band S.C.U.M and a choir of teen girls all dressed in denim jackets. While this introduction certainly grabbed the attention of the audience, it worked more as a stunt than a great song. It certainly introduced the fact that Zeffira wasn't going to play it safe, but it also felt like she had walked into the church earlier in the day and thought 'look there's an Organ here! We better use it.' Regardless, by the time she had sat down (like a concert pianist) and played the opening chords of 'The Deserters' – the title track of her album, it was evident that this was her night.
Zeffira's voice is astonishing. It sounds full of longing and is very close to that of Mary Weiss of the Shangri-La's, an obvious influence on Cat's Eyes. She could sing about buying dog food and I think that she could still have the ability to move people with her vocal tone. When combined with sweeping orchestral arrangements and piano work reminiscent of Yann Tiersen and Ludovico Einaudi, it slotted in like a jigsaw.
There were brief moments of the set where things got a little wishy-washy but this was soon eradicated with the introduction of drums and/or a drum machine. With these ingredients added, it felt like a time-shift; the moment when classical music met the modern age. Of the unheard material 'Break the Spell', a dark and energetic song got the best reception. There was bound to be at least one Cat's Eyes song present in the set and it was 'Over You' that was featured and wonderfully executed, the orchestra appearing to raise their game.
Zeffira ended the night with a cover of My Bloody Valentine's 'To Here Knows When', a track she has previously released for free download. In the live setting it was stunning. The musicians managed to keep all the heady daze of the original, the choir (who were obviously loving every second) softly cooing in the background. "Thank you for coming to my first ever gig" she said, leaving the stage before returning on her own to perform a heartbreaking encore of another Cat's Eyes song – 'Love You Anyway'.
The gig felt like a real occasion; a time before the album is released, the first ever performance of new material, the first ever performance. It all culminated to make a fantastic atmosphere and great night of music. The choice of venue perfectly suited the evening and it will be very interesting to see which venues Zeffira will play once her album The Deserters is released. After tonight, a pub just won't suffice.