Friday 2 March 2012

Soko at Union Chapel - 1 March 2012

Soko pic by JS Hollis

The Union Chapel is a beautiful setting for a gig. Intimate, yet spectacular, it lends a real sense of occasion.

New Yorker Luke Rathborne is certainly taken by the rows of pews and the high, stained-glass windows. He says as much, I think, although I can’t say for certain, because from where I’m sitting (high above and to the left of the stage) the acoustics are pretty terrible. I just hear “Mumble…mumble…mumble”. He seems happy enough.

Rathborne mostly strums at an electric guitar, and there seems too much reverb or distortion, even when he is just being chatty. It’s all very laid back and pleasant, but you can’t really make anything out.

It’s been a while since I saw Soko. Previously, I’ve seen her tear up an I’m From Barcelona gig. I was also at a notorious Dingwalls gig where her behaviour and demeanour became so disturbed that it seemed a kindness to leave.

At first it seems as though we might be in for a repeat performance. Soko is initially extremely nervous and fidgety, her unease manifesting itself as an inability to choose a suitable guitar, as each instrument is tried and tuned and discarded in turn.

This time round, Soko has with her not only her usual accompanist Gillian Maguire, but her own younger brother Max and Luke Rathborne to lend a hand. Surrounded by friends, Soko visibly calms down.

Tonight’s lengthy set is heavily drawn from the new album “I Thought I Was An Alien”. The title speaks to the themes that run through most of Soko’s material – alienation, self doubt, unhappiness. You get a recurring sense that to be Soko is not to be in a particularly content state of mind.

The band swap instruments with alacrity and almost appear to be acting as a quasi-support group for the star, solicitously helping her to move around the stage or adjusting her guitar strap for her. Soko witters between songs, half to herself, half to the audience.

The sound problem has largely cleared up and the set progresses well. At one point Soko disappears behind a drum kit and bashes and screams her way through a song, an exercise which seems to do her good. Other tracks are so quiet and ethereal that they are barely there, and you lean intently forward to catch them.

The audience is called upon for assistance, notably on the song “How Are You?” the answer to this most mundane question being in Soko’s words “Often really bad.”

Having initially been nervous, Soko draws strength from the performance and becomes more and more upbeat as the night wears on. By the end she is almost enjoying herself.

However, it is a long set, which lasts over ninety minutes without a break. This is an awfully long time to concentrate on self-loathing and discomfort.

It is good to see Soko back and apparently functioning better. However she remains a very fragile presence and although she may have tamed her demons in the Chapel here tonight, it is clear that they have not been banished completely.

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