Tucked away in the heart of London’s St Pancras is St Pancras Old Church, one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in the country, and in whose grounds is buried Mary Wollstonecraft. Grounds that were at one point dug up by a young Thomas Hardy (the novelist, not the one out of Mad Max: Fury Road; that would just be weird) while working for the railways. In short, it’s got a lot of history. So it seems a fitting place for the legendary Rose McDowall to explore her own.But more on that later; first it’s time to go inside and see the rather lovely triptych over the altar, which is currently, and appropriately though subversively, framing three-piece The Wharves, who are kicking out quite a lovely racket. On first hearing there’s a lot of PJ Harvey, or Kim Deal fronting the Pixies (and speaking as someone who got really, really bored with the Pixies after the first two-and-a-half albums, I do mean those first two-and-a-half-albums; the really good ones), to their combination of “When The Levee Breaks”-style drum pounding and two-part harmonies, with the obligatory sprinkling of Patti Smith.On closer listening they’ve done something quite new with their influences — the overall impression is of a clash between ’80s indie pop and ’90s indie rock, the former not having given way to that appalling Britpop self-congratulation but instead just nicking its amps and cranking it up. The combination of sleazy bass and surf-rock guitar will always be a winner, and it’s used to maximum effect here. In short, they’re great, though I can’t speak for the quality of the songwriting as the lyrics are kind of drowned in sound, as it were. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it was ace, though.And then Rose McDowall takes the stage with a six-piece band, and everything changes. A brief hiccup at the beginning where she delivers an emotional introduction to “Ruby Tears” only to remember with a laugh that they’re actually about to play “Stone Is Very Very Cold” kind of sets out the stall for what is to be a glorious evening of heartbreaking music delivered by a consistently funny and self-effacing performer who’s growing middle-aged disgracefully, still rocking the PVC trousers and epic heels. “Stone Is Very Very Cold” is very, very good, of course, and from here on we get an hour or so of some of the most beautifully melancholic pop music ever written.
“Deep Water”, the first Strawberry Switchblade song she plays tonight, is where the real feels first start coming in, though. Largely because, I suspect, when you’ve been a fan of someone for thirty years, the older the music, the more time it’s had to accumulate memories and associations, like moss on a tombstone. And she’s always understood perfectly that all perfect pop music, from The Ronettes to Lana Del Rey, needs to have a core of real sadness. (Which is, incidentally, why Abba are, on many levels, the perfect pop band). And what could be sadder than Sorrow, from whose oeuvre we get the sublimely lovely and lonely “Let There Be Thorns”.The whole set is everything you want from someone with a career as long and strange as hers; there’s a whole bunch of Strawberry Switchblade stuff including the glorious “10 James Orr Street” (which I’d been singing to myself all day but hadn’t imagined I might actually get to hear live) and the gorgeous yet utterly paranoid paean to agoraphobia “Trees And Flowers” (another classic in the roster of what musical contemporary and fellow fringe-dwelling genius Julian Cope self-deprecatingly refers to as “ba-ba-ba songs”).
We get “Cut With The Cake Knife”. We even get “Crystal Nights”, from her Ornamental collaboration with Iceland’s master of pagan pop Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. And yes, we get her cover of “Don’t Fear The Reaper”, which is majestic. I mean, it’s kind of a hard song to do badly, really, as long as you play all the right notes at the right time, but tonight she fucking owns it, all apocalyptic beauty and angelic stoner bliss.
Prior to tonight, one of my top ten musical memories (along with Swans at Koko in 2012, New Model Army at Reading in 1989 and Psychic TV at the Subterania in several unspecified and barely-remembered years the following decade) was seeing Rose perform “Since Yesterday” with Current 93 at The Union Chapel in 1997, as immortalised on the Cats Drunk On Copper album. Tonight, with her own band, she blows that out of the water. Doesn’t matter how you arrange it, it’s a cracking song, and here, in its folky setting — and again, oddly enough, in a church — it practically kills. And then we’re done. And after an hour of listening to such sad, sad sounds, everybody’s smiling. And that’s the magick.
-Words: Justin Farrington-
-Pictures: Samantha Penny-