LIVE REPORT: Current 93

Joseph Burnett heads to the Union Chapel for the live return of David Tibet's Current 93, who are joined for an incredibly rare singing performance by Shirley Collins. Photos by Karolina Urbaniak

There is a distinct air of reverence permeating Union Chapel as both the audience and, it would seem, the performers prepare for the first live UK appearance by David Tibet’s Current 93 since 2011. The opening act MacGillivray is a warm-voiced woman with dramatic tones who enraptures the early comers with spindly piano ballads that ring dramatically around the old hall. Then, I learn that two of British folk’s most distinctive voices will be playing some part in the night’s proceedings, namely Comus singer Bobbie Watson, whose aching falsetto enraptured me from the first seconds of that band’s ‘The Herald’, and none other than Shirley Collins, an artist who surely needs no introduction here, and who stands like a giant over this country’s modern folk scene.

Then there’s the venue itself. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate location in which to sit and take in the arcane folk-rock of Current 93 than a venerable old chapel where sounds ring off the walls and audiences seem to subconsciously cotton themselves in respectful silence, as if receiving a sermon rather than a musical performance. We may be a largely non-believing nation, and Current 93 are hardly a band of the cloth, but somehow the sense of spirituality inside the church seems to permeate into the hearts of most of the listeners. In the cavernous, Scandinavian-esque bar a different sense of reverence plays out, as painted goths wander the room with pints of beer, like pagan worshippers gearing up for a major ceremony. There is an aura to Current 93, somewhere between Psychic TV and Swans, and this audience seems, for the most part, positively devout.

If I declare myself to be unconvinced by such uncritical dedication, I am nothing more than a hypocrite, because I listen to Shirley Collins in positively rapt adoration. Her voice has changed from her heyday, being more of a throaty moan as she approaches her eighth decade, but it still carries the emotions of her lyrics through the hall with unbridled power. Accompanied by a sole guitarist, she conjures raw emotion from the classic ballad ‘Death and the Lady’, the song’s gravitas given added potency in the hands of someone so late in years. It’s a reminder of Collins’ importance to British music, her contribution re-etched in the stones of Union Chapel. David Tibet has, in the last few years, brought the likes of Simon Finn and German band Sand back to the ears of the wider world, but by bringing Shirley Collins back to the stage to introduce him, he has come up new trumps, and for that, I for one am hugely grateful.

The celebratory atmosphere continues, nay, ratchets up a notch when Current 93 take to the stage, with Tibet arriving last to yelps and furious applause. This expansive incarnation of the band, which includes the aforementioned Bobbie Watson on backing vocals, her Comus bandmate and husband Job Seagroatt on reeds and the legendary Tony McPhee (of Groundhogs) on guitar, again brings to mind the latest Swans formation, all portentous vocal deliveries, thundering arrangements and epic scale. Tonight, they’re premiering their latest album, I Am The Last Of All The Field That Fell, and it promises on this evidence to be one of their most emphatic to date, with Tibet in particularly confident vocal mood in front of his loyal cohorts. Watson’s contribution is by far the most exciting, her eerie high notes winding around Tibet’s more nasal tones to lend an almost mystical edge to proceedings.

It’s fair to say, however, that this ambitious, expansive Current 93 is not to the liking of all fans, if chatter at the bar and in the smoking area is anything to go by. The grim, austere, noisy post-everything clatter of Dog’s Blood Rising is in 2014 but a distant memory, and the hushed, reverent nature of some fans sat ill with others expecting something more rambunctious and confrontational. For my part, this concert, and by extension I Am The Last Of All The Field That Fell, feel like the logical progression, or even conclusion, of Tibet’s seminal folk arcania displayed on The Inmost Light collection: part heathen, part folk, part avant-rock, and therefore always grandiose. David Tibet is a man with a lot to express, and with Current 93 has found a vehicle to shout it all out to the heavens. I doubt it will ever please the more nuts and bolts fans I bumped into throughout the set, such as the grumbling Norwegian fan tired of being shushed, but what unfurls in the shadow of Union Chapel’s altar is a vision you either try to share or get left behind. If Shirley Collins and Bobbie Watson are along for the journey, then so am I.

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