On Monday 24 October, the Islington Assembly Hall welcomed Lisa Hannigan and her band, touring to promote her long-awaited new album At Swim. By 8pm, the hall was already filling up. First on stage was Portland singer/songwriter Heather Woods Broderick, performing songs from her 2009 debut From The Ground plus a taste of new solo album Glider.
The songs were Broderick’s trademark melancholic meditations on memory and regret, on friends lost and places left behind, and her low, dreamy voice suited the mood. For much of the set, she sat shrouded in smoke on a darkened stage, gazing down at her guitar as though singing to herself. Her introspective manner on stage, combined with her rather foggy, indistinct vocal style (admittedly not helped by what didn’t seem to be the best sound system in the world) did create a certain sense of distance between her and the audience. Perhaps the greatest moment of connection came near the end of her set, when she summoned up some snark for the people chatting at the back of the hall during her performance, getting a well-deserved laugh and applause.
When Lisa Hannigan walked on stage alone, in a simple black dress with a butterfly print, the atmosphere changed. From the first moment her clear, silvery vocal drifted through the air, she had the unruly crowd captivated. She opened with the delicate ‘Little Bird’ from her second album, before swapping her guitar for a mandolin to lift the mood with the playful rhythms and quirky rhyming of title track ‘Passenger’.
The band joined her for the first of the night’s songs from At Swim, soulful ballad ‘Ora’ – accompanied by ethereal harmonics on the violin as the lighting left Lisa in near darkness – followed by the whimsical ‘Funeral Suit’. She delighted the crowd with a couple of dips back into much-loved first album Sea Sew: first a surprisingly energetic version of ‘Pistachio’, and later a slow, languorous rendition of ‘Lille’.
Five songs in, Lisa invited Heather to join the band on stage – which she did, looking more comfortable in her role as band member than she had as solo artist. Fitting right in as though she’d always been part of the band, she provided a backing of harmonies in the lower registers on ‘O Sleep’ and ‘Prayer for the Dying’ for Lisa’s pure soprano to soar against. Lisa’s classical influences came through in that at-times operatic voice and choral harmonies, as well as in the instrumentation – the crescendo motifs on the violin at times seemed to borrow more from the Romantic composers than the folk fiddle tradition, as did the use of harmonics and col legno.
At one point Lisa revealed her intention to play all the songs from the new record – and she certainly came close – and we heard ‘Fall’, ‘Snow, ‘Tender’ in succession. On the powerful ‘We The Drowned’, she gave perhaps her most intense performance of the night, hauling on her squeeze box like it was a rope on one of the lost ships she sings about, untamed hair tumbled over her face. The sea has been a recurring theme in Lisa’s songs since her first album. But it’s a darker, more menacing sea that we’re invited to explore in in At Swim, rich with mythological imagery – sunken treasure, burning ships, lone sailors blown off course.
By the time the foot-tapping rhythms of ‘Undertow’ got the audience moving and clapping along, her delicate voice was starting to sound hoarse. She didn’t let it stop her rocking out as the band returned to the Passenger era with a furious performance of ‘Knots’, with some virtuosic fiddle skills on display. At last, a hush fell over the crowd as Lisa closed her set with a wistful and emotive rendition of ‘A Sail’. Starting with the light and whimsical, she’d taken her audience on an emotional journey over the course of the evening, finally returning to the folk storytelling roots that underpin all her work, and we were with her all the way.
Words: Sarah Byrne
Photo: Duncan Martin (More photos)