It’s always gratifying to find The Union Chapel full; if not packed to rafter stretching capacity, there was a good crowd in for Karine Polwart. It’s a lovely venue, but needs the warmth of human bodies to bring it to life. Given the hard wooden pew seating, the venue also demands a great performance from the artist. And boy did we get one of those. So much so, that when one of the audience keeled over yards from where I sat, I didn’t immediately notice I was so completely wrapped up in Karine’s world. Thankfully there were doctors amongst the crowd able to help.
We were treated to an expanded line-up on stage, with the usual performing partners: her brother Steven on guitars and Inge Thompson on accordion and percussion, augmented by Iain Sandilands on percussion and marimba and Graeme Smillie on keys and bass. Despite a slightly wry introduction, suggesting it was a special London privilege, the extra numbers were there to help recreate the songs from the excellent new album Traces. It’s perhaps the Burns Unit experience that led Karine to seek a fuller sound for this new record, but producer Iain Cook proved sympathetic to her ambitions, helping deliver a sumptuous sound layered with subtle nuance. On the night, the additional duo seemed to fit perfectly, as if they’d always been there, bringing a soupcon of extra drama to Karine’s thoughtful, emotionally charged songs.
Songs from Traces, naturally enough, featured prominently. The wonderful Cover Your Eyes opened the first set and Karine made clear the betrayal felt by those who opposed Donald Trump’s vainglorious golf development. She talked at length, perhaps concerned that some of the meanings in the songs are somewhat veiled, but the power of Strange News and We’re All Leaving, dealing with different aspects of death left the audience in moist-eyed reverence. Well, I know I wasn’t the only one a little overcome.
Karine’s a serious songwriter in any way you carve up that word, prepared to tackle the big issue of our fragile existence, yet somehow able to imbue everything with a real faith in humanity, along with the richness that a keen mind can bring and an elegant way with words. Sticks And Stones (our homes are so much more than bricks and mortar), Salters Road (a celebration of a life lived to the full), Tinsel Show (the unlikely beauty of a view over a petrochemical plant) and King Of Birds (the Occupy protest, St Paul’s, its architect and the tiny songbird mingled into one powerful metaphor) are all poignant reminders of the power of song. Hot off the press, The Robin too, was a captivating response to the appearance of said bird in Karine’s kitchen spiked with the promise of a positive omen.
There was some fun to be had too. Five More Sleeps allowed her to reprise Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and The Beatles from her parents’ meagre record collection. From the latter there was also a timely Love Me Do with Steven’s ukulele accompaniment and an odd 5/8 time signature (“Sing-along, but don’t try and dance,” we were warned). Also timely was an encore of A New England to commemorate the death of Kirsty MacColl, prompting more audience participation. One of the breezier songs from her back catalogue, Daisy, was played again in the second set at the special request of one of the previously distracted doctors and we were asked by Steven to pretend it was Karine’s big hit single, to much mutual hilarity.
I suspect, however, that the majority had come for the frisson of anger, sorrows and little triumphs in the face of adversity that make her songs so compelling. The heavenly gorgeousness of Follow The Heron closed the concert and lifted us on our way, but not before offering a standing ovation to acclaim one of the finest singers and songwriters these isles possess. We were all (bar one of us), the better for these two hours and will hold the experience close in our hearts.