17/02/2015 08:53 GMT | Updated 18/04/2015 06:59 BST

Gig Review: Brandi Carlile at the Union Chapel, February 2015


Armed with guitar, her incredibly powerful voice and some impressive boot stompin', Brandi Carlile is ready to conquer Europe.

Having put aside the misadventures caused by the erupting Icelandic volcano that forced her to cancel her 2010 tour across the Old Continent, this time, Seattle-based rock 'n' roll songstress managed to smoothly book two London shows and watched them sell out in a matter of hours. And as she promises on Facebook after the gig, these dates are just the beginning: "[She's] coming to get you, Europe!".

Her shows on 12 and 13 February were the continuation of her U.S. Pin Drop Tour, a unique experiment in amp-free performance within venues that were purposely imagined and built as ingenious amplifiers. No mics, no amps, no PA system. What you're left with is an echoing room full of objects and people interacting with the artist.

In this case, the architectural protagonist was the Union Chapel in Islington, one of the most intimate and authentic venues out there. It's a working church that was built in the 19th century, before amplifiers had even been invented.

Due to its nature, the venue doesn't have an alcohol-serving bar, so chances are you'll see crowds of people queueing outside the tiny cloakroom/café/restaurant to get a mug of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and marshmallows. The result is cosy and pretty surreal, with the audience sitting on church benches whilst sipping warm drinks out of old-fashioned mugs, waiting for the artist to appear.

And that's what Carlile was looking to find: feeling comfortably part of the same community, being present in the show and reacting to voices, sounds, creaky wooden floors and ancient walls that amplify interactions.

She opens with her biggest hit, 'The Story'. This only adds to the intimacy of the gig: the artist is a storyteller and the audience has gathered to listen to every layer of organic sound. No one dares to sing along, yet everyone is fully present, trying to capture what gets lost without the help of the usual microphone. Carlile's unmistakable voice owns the Chapel from the start, though her confidence in experimenting with her range and tone in response to the surrounding echoing room grows exponentially throughout the show.

"Is anybody surprised?," she asks right after her first song. "For us it's very important to join you guys and step out from the many microphones and speakers that might be here. Tonight the room is a part of the event," she explains.

And perhaps yes, "surprised" might describe it, because for the audience, too, this is for sure a learning experience. It takes some listening to acclimatise, understand mutual roles and get the timing right when all actions, whispers and responses travel equally loud across the venue from audience to artist and from artist to audience. Once that's sorted, the show goes on gloriously, with rhythmic hand clapping, synchronised boot stompin', laughs and cheering.

The experience is rendered even richer by Carlile's band - the Twins (Tim and Phil Hanseroth) with their acoustic guitars and bass, two cellists and a violinist, in true folk fashion.

The only thing vaguely resembling an amplification system are two vintage megaphones that the band found in an antique shop. The theatrical role of these heavy-looking instruments suddenly livens up when Carlile starts singing Have You Ever, grabs a megaphone, points it to the ceiling and improvises a parade in the audience, followed by the Twins who are playing a big marching band drum.

And the gig goes on like that, reaching a level of intimacy that turns out to be perfect for Carlile's style, music and public persona. In fact, the social depth of her performance can't go unnoticed as she makes multiple references to marriage equality and the need to tackle hate crimes against the LGBT community. A happily married lesbian mother herself, Carlile makes good use of her stage voice to raise awareness for these issues, creating an intimate climate of acceptance for her LGBT fans.

It isn't a coincidence that she chooses to end the show with her cover of The Avett Brothers' Murder in the City, singing "Make sure my wife knows I love her/ Make sure my daughter knows the same". And the result is a community-focused show where a lesbian couple even feels safe and comfortable enough to stand up and dance slowly, in front of the entire audience, to A Promise To Keep.

A pretty incredible outcome for a folk gig set in an only apparently intimidating church room in which every movement and sound inevitably become temporary protagonists.


Brandi Carlile's new album, The Firewatcher's Daughter, is coming out on 3 March 2015 on ATO Records.