The Irish singer-songwriter brings her full band to London for a date at Union Chapel.

Gemma Hayes show at London’s Union Chapel closes an eventful year for the Irish singer-songwriter. It’s an absolutely stunning venue for a gig. Built in the 1870s as a chapel for Anglican worship and designed for placing music at the centre of it activities, this Victorian chapel is now in regular use as a music venue. Outside, its London in December; dark and damp. However, inside the ancient overhead gas heaters are ablaze with warmth and the pews are crowded with an expectant audience.

Gemma’s career has taken an upswing in recent months. Her current album, Bones + Longing, released just over a year ago, has been universally acclaimed as her best work in a decade. A series of live shows in the UK and Ireland have received rave reviews. Since the nomination of her first album for the prestigious Mercury award, Gemma has chosen her path, never playing ‘the game’ according to the rules. She’s experienced corporate record labels and their career destroying politics, fallen out of love with music, and fallen in love again with making it her way. And whilst eschewing commercial success, she’s quietly been building up a substantial body of work. Bones + Longing is her fifth studio album. It’s release coincided with a relocation from LA to Dublin and thence to London, and the birth of her first child.

Tonight Gemma plays with a full band, comprising Tom Osander (drums), Stephen Barlow (guitar and mandolin), Tali Trow (upright and electric bass), and Ruth O’Mahoney Brady (keyboards and backing vocals).

The lights are low and aimed upwards towards to the high vaulted ceiling as Gemma’s band take the stage, opening with “Dreamt You Were Fine,” the second track from Bones + Longing. “I’ve got a lot I want to say you to you, so sit yourself down…” It’s raw, and it’s right to the point. From the get go it’s clear; Hayes is in control.

Next, she goes straight into the Joy Division-inspired “Joy,” the lyrical message clear; “I can take on anything, as long as I can see you.” Tali Trow’s electric bass lines drive the song, Peter Hook style. And then, she asks “Are ye alright?” The band follows with the wonderfully confessional “Making My Way Back,” before playing “Back of My Hand,” clearly a crowd favourite.

After four songs, there is finally a pause and some banter with the audience. Gemma sets off on her equine inspired section next with “Horse” and “Palomino,” the former being the sole song on the setlist from her second album, The Roads Don’t Love You. The latter song is a highlight from her current album, with its Laurel Canyon style harmonies, the backing vocals superbly provided by Ruth O’Mahoney Brady. It’s ethereal quality and rich harmonies reverberate in the Union Chapel; all are a credit to the mixing desk for tonight’s perfect sound.

Next up is the hugely intense “To Be Your Honey,” another from Bones + Longing. Tali Trow switches to an upright bass. It’s so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. The entire room is focused on the repeating acoustic riff, hanging on the moment. The song ends on the harmony sustain, blissfully held by the blended tone of Gemma and Ruth’s vocal. For a few minutes, we were entranced – the spell only broken by rapturous applause.

Gemma visits her fourth album, Let It Break, for “Shock To My System,” before taking her place at the upright piano for “All I Need.” The exemplary drums from Tom Osander are the perfect foil to Gemma’s piano playing.

She brings opening act and sometime collaborator, Joe Chester, back on stage for two duets, both covers. The first song, “A Safe Place To Hide,” she recorded with Chester on his album, A Murder of Crows. The second song is her version of Ryan Adam’s “Come Pick Me Up.” Gemma’s treatment here is authentic contemporary country, and it’s clear when she sings the lyrics (“Come pick me up, Take me out, Fuck me up, Steal my records, Screw all my friends, They’re all full of shit.“), she’s been there and worn this particular T-shirt.

One of Hayes’ great strengths is her ability to flit between eclectic styles. Yet, at the core of everything, she does; there is a fiercely burning integrity. Her voice is always stunning, always confident.

The show picks up the pace with a rocky sound on “Iona” and the dazzling “Laughter” with some fantastic guitar work from Stephen Barlow. With the feedback folding into a crescendo, Ruth O’Mahoney Brady moves to the upright piano. The lights go down as Gemma takes off her guitar and steps forward under a single spotlight to stand both hands placed on her microphone, brilliantly juxtaposed it’s the brittle contrast of the plaintive paired down “Noise.” She sings with heavy irony, “I can’t hear you ..there’s too much noise,” as she brings the set to a silent close. There’s a brief moment of absolute silence before the venue bursts into a resounding tidal wave of appreciative applause.

Returning to the stage for the encore, Gemma recounts an oft-told tale of the infant school bully who was the inspiration for “Oliver.” It’s a bittersweet love song, and an absolute delight, with Gemma’s beautiful Irish voice evoking every ounce of sadness. It’s a final change of mood for the rousing and show ending, “Let A Good Thing Go.” It’s a standing ovation, a team bow with a beaming Gemma, and she knows she just owned the stage at the Union Chapel tonight.

Author: Melody May-Kerr

Eric Duvet was behind the lens for the night.

Gemma Hayes
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Joe Chester
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Union Chapel
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