There’s an atmosphere of listening that can’t be found except in a church; perhaps a place of worship, though my experience is limited to chapels devoted to strands of Christianity. And not any old church. Not carpeted, tapestried, colour-felted playschool ambience. Not wooden-floored, folding-chaired, plaster-boarded, embracing rooms of praise.
Stone walls. Vaulted ceiling. Floors polished by years of shoes dragging their way to a stiff-backed pew. Brass candlesticks, stained-glass windows, perhaps purportedly-idolatrous statues. Hints at misplaced luxury.
It may be, the echo makes us afraid of our own voices. We speak and are amplified to others and to our own ears. Hushed tones seem sacrilegious in their volume. For me, this is the Quiet Tim Minchin knows: “like silence but not really silent, just that still sort of quiet, like the sound of a page being turned in a book, or a pause in the walk in the woods. … just the sound of your heart in your head. … like I’ve sailed into the eye of the storm.” I don’t fear these buildings. As a child, I much preferred being dragged to a foreign church, as if it was a museum, than a museum itself. The cool air, its calmness comforting. I never found the devotion of those around me intimidating; but did find the respect their focus inspired stilling.
And so, an audience without food, without booze (except for the drink they’d managed to imbibe in the pub beforehand), waited, seated, their anticipation palpable in the electrifying static of St Giles-in-the-Field’s atmosphere. John C. Reilly will be known to most, of those who know him, for being a personable, brilliant, funny, heartwarming actor. He is also, John Reilly, personable, brilliant, funny, heartwarming, guitar-playing, singer-on-a-passionate-mission to keep old songs alive. With two friends from his band – Tom Brosseau, North Dakotan, handsome gentleman, and charm-incarnate Becky Stark of Lavender Diamonds – he entertained us into the night with quips of discomfort about (some of) the music’s religious conservatism, quick-fire observations in the moment, and the most beautiful close harmonies I’ve heard live in a long time. This music – bluegrass, country, folk – needs to be heard in person. The performers enjoyment was palpable, the gig had all the class of a performance and intimacy of a living-room sing-song. I longed to join in, and we all did, humming along with our feet tapping and hands clapping at every opportunity. Reilly said, “Thank you for coming. It would have been a rehearsal without you,” which speaks to the heart of music: no recording will ever have the charm to effect in this way; no performer will ever have the power to communicate to a microphone more heartbreakingly than to people in their presence. And few concert halls can focus the listener, like these rooms of devotion to the unknown.