The church is pitched into darkness before lights illuminate the sanctuary alone. Patrick Wolf strides to where the altar should be, shaking his overgrown fringe out of his eyes and straightening a glittering collar which appears to be made of gold tinsel. Later mumblings about “Poundland” and “the recession” suggest that my suspicions of fashion D.I.Y. might be true.
With the troublesome acoustics of the O2 in mind, it’s not hard to see why St John the Evangelist, with its impressive atmosphere and perfect amplification, was handpicked as the location to showcase the performer’s decade-long musical career.
My initial concerns that the acoustic format of Patrick Wolf’s tenth anniversary world tour could strip his music of its flamboyant joy are immediately assuaged by support act Abi Wade. With just her voice and a cello, she impressively illustrates a complex range of sounds, filling the church with her haunting voice.
By contrast, Wolf brings along a plethora of instruments, skipping from grand piano to guitar by way of a harp, string duet, accordion and ukulele.
He’s clearly a skilled musician, at times simultaneously singing and playing the viola, and creating a set that feels rounded and lush. Amidst the banal backdrop of mainstream dance and R&B, it’s refreshing to see someone with the confidence and ambition to so fully and successfully incorporate classical elements into popular music. Without the tinny drum machines and guitars on the album versions, ‘Bermondsey Street’ assumes its rightful sincerity and ‘Hard Times’ seems yet more majestic. The only downside is that without a complete backing band, Wolf is unable to completely give in to the performance, leaving the usually elated and energetic ‘The City’ falling a little flat. Nevertheless, the soaring violin lines, lush interweaving melodies and lyrics of self-discovery, loneliness and the redeeming power of love create a striking and immersive experience.
Yet sometimes Wolf overstretches himself. He describes an intense weekend spent in isolation considering what to perform for an earlier meeting with Prince Charles. In the end he decided to write him a poem, which we too are to hear because we’re “more important than the monarchy”.
Unfortunately the result is a somewhat hackneyed and amateurish verse which serves only to remind us that, beneath the rich instrumentation and noble messages of his songs, Wolf is actually not much of a wordsmith. Poetry aside, it seems that the meeting was something of a disappointment, as Wolf wryly remarks that the prince only wanted to “talk about our hair”. Despite Wolf’s at times pretentious and self-indulgent philosophic contemplations, I suspect that this says more about Prince Charles himself than Wolf’s conversational efforts.