It’s testament to Glasgow’s wholehearted dedication to live music that there are only a handful of shows in recent memory that have made anyone question the sanity of the bookers responsible. One was Black Breath’s show at The Arches a few years back, on a stage three times larger than they needed and a room three times larger than they were comfortable with, leaving them stranded like dinghies in the middle of the Atlantic; the other was to have Alan Smithee’s brand of generic indie musicide as an opening act for someone as inimitable as Chelsea Wolfe. Despite a few gleams of light cutting through the grey in the form of some inspired bass runs and a lead guitarist evidently struggling beneath his station, it fails to disguise the blandness of their songwriting and a vocalist stuck in a time when NME was relevant. It may seem black-hearted to lambast kids who are doubtlessly chuffed to be playing on this hallowed stage but the knowledge that a half-dozen more appropriate, not to mention interesting, acts would have happily accepted the slot stamps any semblance of guilt into dust. After a painfully protracted half-hour and a few stern words from staff to some of their more obnoxious fans and friends, a merciful reprieve is granted and the crowd begin to spill in.
As the house lights dim, the sombre sounds of Henryk Górecki fill the room for several minutes, just long enough to let the gloom seep in, and Chelsea Wolfe takes the stage with violinist and keyboardist in tow before easing the band into Appalachia, a characteristically dark performance that manages to hold its tense grip despite the usual background noise of bar chatter. Making her way through a short acoustic set lifted entirely from last year’s ‘Unknown Rooms’, there is a clarity to her presence that was unknown to her only a year before, her voice carrying a strange lucidity but also leaving her wide open to anyone caring to peer in. It’s most apparent on the fairy tale swoon of ‘Spinning Centers’, her bold guitarwork completely overshadowed by a voice working at its most blissful, the fangs barely perceptible behind the mask of fragility she adorns, though shades of her old fire return on the brooding country dirge of ‘Flatlands’, the best song Scott Kelly never wrote. By the time she is joined by the rest of her band for ‘Demons’, it’s a full-blown inferno.
The transformation exhibited between these two almost-sets is what gives Wolfe a near-timeless charm and sets her firmly in the camp of the aforementioned Scott Kelly; in an intimate environment, she’s earnest and the picture of the troubled troubadour, but give her the right amount of amplification and watch the heaviness come crashing down. Her voice shifts; less a vessel for words now but another conduit for melody, a low growl that drags the sensual swagger of ‘Demons’ along by the nape of the neck and ebbs and flows with Mer’s own liquid motions. Just as her earlier songs showed the strength of her character, this is conclusive evidence of her raw power, the trembling wails of Moses laden with deathly portent as band whip up an aura of thick, atmospheric doom. As ‘Movie Screen’ brings new layers, vocal loops and suffocating synths giving a few nods to Portishead’s more oppressive moments, it’s as if the final component has been added.
What Wolfe and her band have demonstrated is a sense of completeness, more than mere gloomy introspection or doom pandering but an accomplished and intriguing exhibition, playing their hands and winning the awe and admiration of a new city’s offering of the curious and the devoted. When Black Breath played that show, they delivered a beast of a performance that closed any distance between them and the audience; tonight, Chelsea Wolfe did the same, obliterating a sub-par performance with one beautiful beyond words.
Scribed by: Dave Bowes
Photos by: Claire Thomson