Review: Hannah Cohen & Glen Hansard – Union Chapel, London

I’ve had a bit of a fantasy about Union Chapel since I first saw its mega gig listings. In the run-up to Christmas 2012, Marques Toliver, Thea Gilmore, Beth Orton and Philip Glass will all play there, among many, many other great musicians. My fantasy was only perpetuated by the fact that, until Tuesday night, I’d never stepped inside the place. It’s a beautiful mid to late nineteenth century church, which now functions as an award-winning venue and a shelter for those in need. Despite its size, it feels homely, warm and safe; it is a wonderful place to watch live music.

The acoustic is dreamy, the lighting subtle and the whole experience rather like a fairytale, with the chapel’s reaching arches silhouetted in a ghostly green hue, tealights flickering at the foot of the balcony. The sound is crystal clear, especially if you’ve got a voice like Hannah Cohen who, as I have mentioned on TFFT before, may actually be the perfect human being. All long limbs and slightly self-conscious swaying, her voice live made the record sound comparatively flat. Soft, gentle and fragile, her supposedly simplistic songs are utterly captivating, as was her understated performance. Highlights were The Crying GameSunrise and a beautiful, confidently slow rendition of Sorry.

Glen Hansard headlined the night, an Oscar award-winning songwriter and vocalist for The Frames. On stage, he had beside him a guitarist, bassist, drummer, a three-piece string section and a three-piece brass section. During the songs’ many epic climaxes, the sound from each group of instrumentalists was strong and wonderfully balanced, keeping a Hansard newbie like me interested in the orchestration, if not so much in the songs themselves. Bird of Sorrow and You Will Become had their moving moments, and you could never accuse Hansard of performing half-heartedly, but mostly I was just having a nice time listening to him and often worrying about the state of his vocal chords. That man can scream on demand to the joy of a middle-aged audience like nobody I have ever witnessed.

All in all, a beautiful situation and generally enjoyable music, but Cohen’s spine-tingling vulnerability outshone Hansard’s folk rock for me. The same can’t be said for the rest of the crowd, who seemed so enraptured by Hansard that they would probably have applauded and cheered if he’d dropped his plectrum and vomited on it. Still, it made for a great atmosphere, so can’t knock them too much. Go to a gig at the Union Chapel if you haven’t already; it’s a special place.

Anna Byrne