Patrick Wolf is a sick man. Braving the flu and a fever sweating through his pores, it’s a wonder he’s even here tonight. Employees have called in sick for less. But here he is, intent on getting on with the show – after all, as he says, the only gig he has ever called off was once, when a cancelled plane prevented him from travelling.
We arrive early, as we know from a previous gig at this venue (with Erland Cooper) that the venue is small and there’ll only be seats for the first-comers. We wait in the rain for 30 minutes; then, we sit in our seats for about an hour before the gig begins. I prefer concerts with numbered seats to avoid these kinds of queuing-waiting situations, but sometimes a concert-goer must grin it and bear it.
It’s not only the performer on stage who’s ill tonight. So is one of his audience members. Me. I am at the tail-end of a cold from hell and luckily the cough I’ve endured in the last few days has magically gone away in time for the concert and at this point, I’m just completely exhausted. Illness aside, this turns out to be a great concert. This is the fourth time I’ve seen Wolf live and the first time since 2012 at the Old Vic.
Has anything changed since then? Well, his physical appearance is different. I used to think of him as lean and lanky, but he’s beefed up since I last saw a picture of him. His hair hangs down like straggly threads that he repeatedly curls and pulls at during the concert. He’s dressed in a dark, kind-of-toga outfit, and his appearance instantly makes me think of Anhoni (formerly Antony of Antony and the Johnsons) – the resemblance, at least from the fifth row, is uncanny.
He pulls at his long, wiry hair throughout the concert. I usually wouldn’t write a whole paragraph about someone’s hair, but it gets to a point where I wish he would brush it behind his ears and just be done with it. It gets distracting after a while and makes you wonder if it’s all a studied pose or just hair hanging down inconveniently. Maybe it’s a nervous tick or some kind of ‘good luck’ ritual, like tennis player Rafael Nadal, who adjusts his hair before every ball of tennis he plays. But enough about hair.
My friend and I sit behind what we believe to be members of Patrick Wolf’s family, which results in him looking in our direction several times as if he’s singing to and smiling at us. Though it’s obviously his family members he’s looking at, it adds an extra sense of intimacy to some of the songs that he sings them seemingly aimed at us.
The concert begins with the overwhelming sound of a church organ playing on the level above and behind us. Everyone turns towards the sound, and moments later, Patrick Wolf enters the church from the entrance through which we all entered the venue earlier – let’s call it fashionably late. He walks towards the stage and sings with his dramatic baritone voice. Once safely on stage, he picks up his viola and starts playing and plucking away.
Despite a few technical problems here and there, some instruments that need tuning, and Wolf leaving the stage for ten minutes because he’s unwell, he sings and plays like a trouper. He’s so talented that a few hiccups won’t present too much of an obstacle. Though some songs sound unfocused, Wolf’s singing is mostly brilliant, and he plays his chosen instruments (guitar, autoharp, viola, piano) splendidly. It also seems to help him that his sidekick, Jack, is there. Aside from playing the piano, bass and organ, his mere presence seems to support Wolf enough to get him through the show.
Since Wolf doesn’t have a new album to promote, the gig is a hearty blend of old(er) songs. Tristan is played early in the set, but it isn’t the best version I’ve heard of this song, just played on viola. I think this song works best with the strong backbeat that tonight’s version lacks and not just plucking away on a stringed instrument. Having said that, I understand a musician’s urge to experiment with different ways of performing their songs.
Other songs, like Bluebells and Bermondsey Street (one of my favourites), are spot on in their beautiful execution. Wolf plays a moving and fragile Pigeon Song with romantic lines about going alone to the cinema and stealing food from Electric Avenue (in Brixton, South London).
Wolf gets emotional when he introduces a song that he associates with his mother, who passed away not so long ago. He strums the chords of a song by Sandy Denny, Who Knows Where the Time Goes?, and manages to sing a couple of verses before he stops himself. At first, it looks like the song is too emotional for him to sing, but he says he’ll have to leave the stage for a few minutes because he’s unwell and will be back to play some more songs. No one could fault him for stopping the concert at this time. Still, about ten minutes later, Jack returns to the stage and starts playing an introductory piano piece before announcing Patrick Wolf back to the stage to very appreciative applause.
The duo plays a few more songs, including one with Jack back on the organ. Patrick plays the last couple of songs solo on his viola. An alternative version of one of his dancier, more commercial songs, The Magic Position. This is not a song I like very much in the recorded version, but stripped down like this, the song has more depth. The clapping along from the audience doesn’t add much value to this song, but if clapping along feels supportive for the performer on stage, who am I to complain? The fact that Wolf’s voice has gotten croakier during the concert adds to the song’s urgency. After finishing The Magic Position, Wolf tells us, ‘That’s what that song sounds like when you have the flu.’
I don’t know how Patrick Wolf felt about tonight’s gig. It can’t be fun singing and playing and performing while ill. Maybe he got through on adrenaline (and Lucozade). Perhaps his love of playing music and being on stage is a comforting remedy in itself. Regardless, by the look of it, St Pancras Old Church was full of satisfied customers after tonight’s concert.
Patrick Wolf setlist
(Note: This is the setlist as intended but some of the songs were played in a different order and a couple may not have been played)
1. Ghost Song
4. Jacob’s Ladder
7. Hard Times
9. Bermondsey Street
10. The Days
11. Wind in the Wires
14. Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Sandy Denny cover – incomplete)
16. Wolf Song
17. The Sun is Often Out
19. The Magic Position