Martha Wainwright at Union Chapel review: in command of the stage, if a little safe

·2-min read
 (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Sundance/AEG Europe)
(Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Sundance/AEG Europe)

Filling the cavernous Union Chapel with her nervous energy, wonky charm and confessional lyrics, Martha Wainwright was on perky form at the first of two back-to-back shows in this landmark Islington venue. Playing London for the first time since Christmas 2019, the 45-year-old Montreal native half-jokingly apologised for the “dreadfully autobiographical” songs on her latest album, Love Will Be Reborn, which chronicles her acrimonious divorce from ex-husband Brad Albetta.

Backed by a small chamber-pop band, Wainwright opened with the album’s title track, a silky croon couched in feathery jazz percussion, which sounded deceptively cheery. “That’s about as optimistic as it gets,” she quipped. Other selections from the new album proved more unambiguously bleak, especially Report Card, a gorgeously desolate slow-motion country-folk waltz about the wrenching absences caused by shared child custody.

Behind her self-effacing humour and ramshackle demeanour, Wainwright knows how to quietly command a stage. Despite breaking a microphone in pieces mid-show, to much hilarity, her microphone technique was actually faultless, instinctively drawing closer to amplify breathy intimacy and pulling back during full-throated numbers. Similarly impressive was her virtuosic use of vocals as musical shading, adding texture and timbre, effortlessly switching gear between hushed whisper and melismatic yodel on emotionally raw tracks such as Justice and Body and Soul.

Among the stand-out choices from Wainwright’s previous albums were Around The Bend, with its droll one-liners about sex and drugs (“I never get laid, people are too afraid”), and Factory, an impassioned acoustic strummer that swelled into a widescreen anthem with pleasing echoes of Prince’s Purple Rain. Although Wainwright made only fleeting references to her place within a sprawling dynasty of Canadian musical royalty, she did perform a jaunty piano version of Leonard Cohen’s bittersweet memorial to Janis Joplin, Chelsea Hotel#2, and a full-band choral reworking of Proserpina, the last song written by her late mother, the feted folk singer Kate McGarrigle.

Most of this show was firmly rooted in vintage analogue Americana, with occasional flashes of more sonically adventurous terrain. The folksy back-porch atmosphere was agreeably warm-hearted, but it also became a little safe and samey. There was a frustrating sense of more exotic musical landscapes lurking just beyond the horizon, if only these skilled players would just push themselves a little further. Wainwright is a hugely charming performer, but she could afford to challenge her audience a little more. Giving your fans what they want is not always the most creatively rewarding policy.

Union Chapel, tonight,

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