Noah Gundersen and Harrison Whitford – Union Chapel – January 16th 2020

Noah Gunderson is right. It probably does suck to start any UK tour at Islington’s Union Chapel. The wonderful serenity of the surrounds; the stained-glass looking down on us in this stunning place of worship. Other venues just can’t compete with the peace and beauty. “It’s all going to be downhill from here”, observes Noah wisely. 

Tonight, the Union Chapel is Noah’s ark. His brand of singer-songwriter folk goes down a treat with the hushed audience who cling to his every word. Noah loves the British audiences; they’re attentive listeners and polite with their praise. We are in a chapel and sitting in pews after all. 

He’s joined for most of his set in the chapel by support act, Harrison Whitford. Clearly friends off-stage, there’s a magic that works between them. Harrison harmonises and play crisp slide guitar licks whilst Noah holds fort taking cheap (and obvious) shots about the state of British food. Rich from an American. 

We’ve already been treated to Harrison’s support set. He’s great; a storyteller with a manner of delivery that mixes Sufjan Stevens with Randy Newman; he plays a cover from the latter. It’s definitely going to rain today. 

Talking of covers, Noah’s not averse to one or two himself. ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ sounds sad and mournful rather than pop. The Tom Waits cover, ‘Day After Tomorrow’ a smart addition and a set highlight. His own songs, earnest and literate, sometimes suffer from a popular blandness. I yearn for a bit more weirdness in my music but there’s no denying that when Noah really opens his mouth, a powerful voice comes to the fore. 

In between the acts, a chap (whose name I miss) comes and gives an impassioned speech about the sadness of suicide, especially in young men. Apparently, it’s a cause close to Noah’s heart and he’s actively working with this charity to get men to talk, to be more open about their emotions. Got to appreciate that touch. 

We parade out into rain-drenched Islington streets. I’ve enjoyed my first visit to the Union Chapel. The adoring fans are oblivious to a bit of drizzle. 

 

James Robinson – Start A Fire

Singer-songwriters are two-a-penny. They’ve got to have something distinctive about them now to really allow them to rise above the crowd. I’m not sure that, on the basis of his first EP at least, James Robinson has quite done enough to absolutely capture my imagination. But, ‘Start A Fire’, released in the frenzy before Christmas, is a pleasantly crafted EP put together by somebody with undeniable talent. I’ve played the EP to friends who like it more than me so I thought I’d bow to their opinions and write a feature on ‘Sonic Breakfast’.

James Robinson is from Devon. If you listen carefully to the way he pronounces words when he sings, you can pick out a West Country accent. In an age when it’s easier to mimic Mariah or sing as if you’re American (even though you’re from Henley-On-Thames), this is to be broadly commended. The press release that accompanies ‘Start A Fire’ tells me that James was the front man in an alt-pop band called Two Spot Gobi. Despite touring with the likes of Jason Mraz and Bruno Mars (or perhaps because of), I have never heard of Two Spot Gobi.

Regular readers of ‘Sonic Breakfast’ will realise that I’m a sucker for a song with an immediate lyric. I’m generally keen on those tunes that avoid the vague and oblique. I don’t mind having to interpret a bit and I quite enjoy some tunes that can be understood from a range of perspectives but I don’t particularly want to complete a cryptic crossword puzzle when listening. And, I suspect, that this is why, despite liking the delivery and the arrangements across the ‘Start A Fire’ EP, I’m struggling to enjoy it as much as my friends. I don’t doubt that the lyrics are personal and deeply meaningful for James but, for me, I can’t find the entrance.

It’s a four track EP. The title track bounces along to open proceedings. It’s radio-friendly with a singalong ‘ooh-ooh-ooh’ based chorus. It might be about a long-distance relationship or catching up with a friend over a recently-lit camp fire. But, despite repeated listens, I can’t be sure on that front. ‘Demons’ has a shuffling chill-out feel about it. Here, you can see why some Jeff Buckley comparisons have surfaced. Carried by a jazz-laden bass, this is surely about standing up against the challenges life can throw at you. ‘Holes In The Sky’ is a little less perky than the title track and has a lyric that might be saying something about global warming (but probably isn’t).

Here’s what James said about this EP: “At times it’s energetic and hopeful, other times it’s a little more pragmatic and cynical but creatively speaking it’s where I find myself currently – somewhere in between. It’s real, and I hope people will grasp that.”

I might fall into that group that doesn’t entirely grasp. But, I refuse to write James off quite yet. If truth be told, these are clever tunes that do grow on you with repeated listens. My friends like it more than I do as well so give it a spin and tell me that I’m wrong…..