As a venue, The Union Chapel rises serenely above the sticky floors of its close neighbours The Hope & Anchor and The Garage. It balances its roles as fully functioning church and celebrated concert hall with ease and, if you’re after a sense of reverence and ceremony, there aren’t many London venues that can match it. On this balmy May evening, Scott Matthews' disciples gather respectfully along the ridiculously up-at-heel Compton Terrace long before doors open and I have the distinct impression that I am in for one of the more civilised gig-going experiences of my modest career. I install myself in pew 77 with a Coke (no alcohol allowed in the church itself) and begin to contemplate my manifold sins.
Ady Johnson’s opening slot is short and sweet, rather like the man himself. He delivers his set - full of wonky, blues-flecked curios - with humble cheer and good grace, his voice moving effortlessly between a full-throated John Martyn howl and a delicate falsetto quiver that is all his own. With an esoteric guitar style and more than a little songwriting flair, by the closing song I certainly felt I got serious support-act value for money. Highlights were ‘Thank You for the Good Things’ which seemed apt for the venue and ‘Knickerbocker Glory Nonsense Song’ which really didn’t but was excellent fun.
Nick Drake’s Pink Moon plays over the PA in its entirety in the intermission, which allows ample time for the pews to properly fill up and for the booze-starved among the congregation to return to the bar for refuelling. There’s nothing very rock’n’roll about the way in which Matthews takes the stage, armed as he is with a folder of music and a mug bearing the slogan ‘I love spreadsheets’. Intentional or not, his look is ever-so-slightly awkward smart-casual: winkle pickers, a black velvet jacket that is a shade too small (he is a tall person after all) and a very sensible haircut. The set opens with the gentle picking of the new album’s title track ‘The Great Untold’ after which Matthews revisits Home Pt 1 for ‘Mona’ and ‘Sunlight’. The latter feels a little strained but Scott advises us that he had a curry just before the show so I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Things improve for ‘As The Day Passes’, which is one of the standouts from his new release, its rolling beat evocative of the evening’s heat and haze. By this point Mr M has really settled into the zone, the dynamic shifts in his powerful voice being noticeably more striking in the live setting than they are on disc.
Matthews recalls working with legendary bassist Danny Thompson on ‘So Long My Moonlight’, the only song in the set taken from 2011’s What the Night Delivers… onto which Thompson put his indelible mark. Scott then dives straight back to the debut for the superb ‘Eyes Wider than Before’ before picking up the twelve-string for ‘Something Real’ from the new record. The song is lush and passionate, cementing it for me as a bit of a personal favourite. ‘The Rush’ from Home Pt 2 is up next, followed by a particularly haunting rendition of ‘City Headache’ from the debut. An electric guitar comes out (thankfully, nobody shouts ‘Judas!’, considering where we are) for the current single ‘Cinnamon’ which has more hot sultriness to chime with the meteorological conditions once again and the set comes to a close with ‘Passing Stranger’, a further reminder of the strength of Matthews’ first record. Tonight the song descends into as much raucousness and feedback as it is possible for a lone man with a sensible haircut to achieve with just an acoustic guitar and Scott bids farewell to his rapt followers who shout and stamp for more.
Predictably enough, the song that earned Matthews an Ivor Novello, ‘Elusive’, is the first in the pair of encore tunes, sounding as fresh as the day it was recorded. A more downbeat but fitting finale comes in the form of ‘Home & Dry’ and as the lights come up, people begin to shuffle towards the merch stand where, almost impossibly, Scott is already pressing the flesh, signing albums and chatting away.
The solo nature of this show perhaps explains why 2009’s more rocking Elsewhere album is completely passed over this evening. I’d have loved to have heard a few of its tracks and had I stuck around for the ‘pavement gig’ that was promised after the show proper I might have been in luck. That aside, the night as a whole is an illustration of what an impressive body of work Scott Matthews has created over six albums. I’m not alone in thinking he deserves to be counted among the finest English acoustic singer-songwriters of recent decades. Scott Matthews is preaching to the converted tonight of course but if any unsuspecting strays of the parish had happened to wander in for a bit of a pray tonight, a religious experience (of the musical kind at least) would’ve been theirs for the taking.
Review by Rich Barnard.