The Be Good Tanyas with Darden Smith
at Union Chapel, London, UK
(7 July 2002)

Union Chapel is a beautiful building in the heart of Islington. It is a Victorian chapel used for regular church services in addition to being considered one of Time Out London's top 10 concert venues. Outside, there's scaffolding work as roof repair is done. Inside, the stained glass gleams on a sunny day, and it truly must be awesome, using the old-fashioned meaning of the word, for performers to look out at their audience -- in both the main section and the high balcony -- during a show. There is stained glass on the both the main level and balcony; the high ceilings are truly cavernous and breathtakingly beautiful.

Therein lies the rub. Union Chapel is a tough place for sound engineers to work. While I have had very good experiences there sound-wise, this night was not one of them. Opening act Darden Smith, Austin-based singer-songwriter, had a disappointing London debut as he discovered the oddities of the sound system that night. One of his guitars, even when he wasn't playing it, was providing loud, distracting feedback. A sound engineer approached the stage and made some adjustments, but as Smith himself said, "It sounds like it did before." Smith, however, vowed to "struggle on," in his words. "This is what I call 'ego slap,'" he explained. "Just when you think everything is going perfect, God says, 'sit down, son.' Anyone can do a gig when everything's perfect." At one point, however, he unplugged his guitar and stood out in front of the microphone.

He only performed that way for one song, and while it was a little bit of a strain to hear everything without any amplification whatsoever, at least I now could understand what he was saying. It wasn't that he couldn't enunciate; it simply was that the sound system was muddling his words.

Smith is a singer-songwriter whose material works well with AAA-type radio stations. Although he focused on material from Sunflower, his latest release, he also played "Little Victories," an older song that had received quite a bit of radio exposure when it was new. His overall sound is adult-style pop/rock, with some folk influence thrown in for good measure. He knows how to play to his audience and was amazingly patient with a bad sound situation. "Thanks for working with me," he thanked the audience as he completed his set.

There was lots of cheering as the Be Good Tanyas took the stage. Comprising Canadians Frazey Ford on guitar and lead vocals, Samantha Parton on guitar, mandolin, banjo and vocals, and Trish Klein on electric guitar, banjo and harmony vocals, the ladies were backed up by a drummer and bass player. Unfortunately, the sound problems continued to plague the stage. At one point, Parton asked the sound engineer to please mute the guitar she wasn't playing. While the feedback wasn't nearly as bad as what Smith experienced, it was still difficult discerning lyrics over the instruments. Songs were recognized by what the instruments played, not necessarily by what lyrics the women were singing or seemed to be singing.

Luckily for the audience, most of them seemed to be diehard fans who were very familiar with the material they played, much of which came from their debut release, Blue Horse, interspersed with some new songs. This tour was only their second visit to the UK. "It's really amazing to play our second show in London and have so many people show up," gushed Klein, who truly seemed in awe of both the crowd and the venue. (The women discussed how they'd initially wanted the drums up in the pulpit and expressed disappointment that rules expressly forbid such behavior. Interestingly, Smith had earlier declared his desire to play from that height as well.) Their previous London gig was to a full house at a small London club; they'd moved up the venue ladder that night.

The larger venue, however, did not deter from the evening's intimacy. To be honest, while they played their instruments skillfully and sang delightfully (Ford's voice is like that of a bird, albeit a strong bird who can warble and fly jubilantly; she's not a small, weak, fragile bird with broken wings), it sometimes seemed as if we were in a small room with performers who weren't entirely aware of their audience. They politely played their songs. They seemed to be having fun onstage; however, for the most part, they focused their attention on playing the songs and tuning the instruments. There wasn't a lot of effort to involve the audience. After a long, luxurious, yet tentative, "hi," we were told that the first song "requires you to snap your fingers," but they themselves didn't always seem that into the music. Several songs in, Parton started to dance a little, but Ford tended to limit her movements to Natalie Merchant-like hand and arm movements.

On one hand, their music does tend to evoke the feel of an earlier time period. They create a mellow, laidback mood that tends to invite the audience to leave its troubles behind and take on a carefree spirit, even when a song was, as Klein described, "the saddest song ever." There's a gentle revival feel even when the music is 100 percent secular -- a real O Brother, Where Art Thou influence. What could be seen as a lack of enthusiasm could also be viewed merely as fitting the mood. However, towards the end of the show, when they seemed more communicative and comfortable with the audience, it was obvious that something was missing earlier. The Tanyas seemed a bit too caught up in the dreamy, mellow mood they'd created. Throughout the evening, they played toe-tapping tunes that made the audience feel like dancing, but they seemed surprisingly reluctant to join in themselves. The fans didn't seem to mind, however. Sound problems and mistakes on stage don't seem to faze them, even when Parton gently rebuked Ford for playing in the wrong key, and Parton herself had to say the chords aloud ("C, A, E, G") to make sure she remembered the sequence for a song. She looked a little embarrassed, but the audience applauded as she grinned at the number's end.

Old-timey sounding music dominated the evening. There's a distinct Americana feel to their arrangement of the traditional "The Coo Coo Bird" -- both Johnny Cash and trains come to mind upon hearing it. "The Littlest Birds," their new single, drew immediate audience applause with its old-fashioned feel and laidback, yet upbeat, tune. The music took on a more serious tone when they played a new number, which Parton introduced. She talked about how their city has the worst heroine problem in North America. "They all live in our neighborhood," she confessed, before the song opened with a slow, acoustic guitar in the background. "Took a walk around my neighborhood," Ford began, and the mood changed gradually as drums and other instruments were added to the mix.

The church setting perhaps was appropriate for the show, with its revival feel and general overall "feel good" atmosphere. But the sound disappeared into the high ceilings, and all too often the performers seemed to become one with the dreamy mood they'd created. To paraphrase their new single, the littlest birds played the prettiest songs. Luckily for them, their audience, perhaps under some sort of spell, didn't seem to feel that anything was missing.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 18 August 2002