Live | Karine Polwart @ The Union Chapel

THE breathtaking Union Chapel is the perfect setting for this rare gathering of Karine Polwart’s full band. Adding piano and percussion to her regular backing of brother Steven (guitar, good looks, bad jokes) and Inge Thompson (accordion, backing vocals, headscarves), Polwart captivates a packed crowd sheltering from a drizzly October evening.

“We’ve made an effort for you,London”, Polwart smiles, looking around in awe at the majestic church. “The boys were backstage ironing their shirts.” If this group of Scottish folkies feel the spotlight shining on them more than ever these days, it’s little wonder. After more than a decade of relative obscurity, Polwart grabbed the attention of the music world this summer as her new album, Traces, garnered praise from publications as diverse as The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Financial Times.

Speaking to FFS back in August, Polwart stressed the importance of communicating ‘a sense of place’, of telling stories and acknowledging your surroundings. She conjures little worlds within her songs, and it seemed somehow fated that they should end up in such an atmospheric arena. At this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, her Sunday afternoon set became a battle against the elements as an almighty hailstorm swirled around the tent. The opening line of ‘We’re All Leaving’ – “there is thunder on the skyline” – was strangely apposite, and here too it seems as if this 200-year-old church has been moulded to fit Polwart’s words.

She sings of “whispers in the dome”, “spires of stone and steel” and “belfry towers for bells to ring in” – striking images in specific stories, but more relevant than ever despite being delivered hundreds of miles south of where they were conceived. Every word is more poetic and considered than the last, the perfect balance of genuine social angst, deep personal emotion and an appreciation of history and her part in it.

It’s not all hand-wringing and political metaphors, though – there are some lighter moments: A cover of The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ on ukulele and piano accordion in 5/8 time; a rousing rendition of Billy Bragg’s ‘New England’, and a charming performance of ‘Five More Sleeps’, an ode to Polwart’s regular Skype calls with her young family.

Iain Sandilands on percussion and Graeme Smillie on keyboards give the songs the depth and power they need to fill the chapel, but there is no doubt Polwart is the star of the show. Concentration is etched on her face throughout the evening – at the end of every song she gives a little nod, as if to say ‘job done’- and you are left with a feeling that not a single note, word or gesture is done by accident. This is an intense, focused performer who has perfected her craft to quite stunning effect.

words and photo: Sam Blackledge

2 comments for “Live | Karine Polwart @ The Union Chapel

  1. Mark French
    3 November 2012 at 9:48 am

    Not sure about the relative obscurity bit; I attended one of Karine’s Cambridge Folk Festival workshops after Faultlines was released, then shortly after went to London’s South Bank and was taken aback to see her face displayed all over the official hoardings.  
    I reckon that’s about as ‘high profile’ as a true folkie gets these days (and is possibly as a close a flirt with celebrity as any sane person would wish for themselves). She has a fiercely loyal following who respect her integrity. And that is probably worth a lot more.

  2. steve willerton
    11 November 2012 at 5:20 pm

    I attended this gig at the Union Chapel and thought it was fntastic. The chapel was atmospheric and Karine was on good form. I thought it was excellent she played Daisy twice because a medic who came to see the concert purely to hear that track was busy treating a member of the audience who becme ill when it was being played the first time. The extra 2 members of the band were very good and hope they play again in the future. I also went to the Colcester gig which also didn’t disappoint. Look forward to seeing her in Cambridge in 2013

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