Tucked away behind St. Pancras station on a parish hill, away from the bustling King’s Cross, St. Pancras Old Church sits quiet and unassuming, sounds of London in the distance. Stripped down to bare stone with only a handful of wooden chairs on each side, it magically propels us into windswept moorlands or high, howling woods, the venue most befitting the comeback of the UK’s pop troubadour, Patrick Wolf.
With tickets sold within minutes for the 15 January 2020 performance, and battled for online. For those who made it in this evening, the anticipation is tangible. Tonight is Wolf’s first London gig since the acoustic Bush Hall in December 2017. His last album Sundark and Riverlight (2012), was in itself a reinterpretation of previous work. It has been almost nine years since the last original material, yet we find ourselves at the beginning of a sold out three-day residency.
In the capsule of the old church, the time collapses, and rushing to the stage to Wolf’s last angry pop anthem “Hard Times” at London Palladium no longer seems like ten years ago. On the surface, tonight couldn’t be further away from the royal stage of the grand Palladium. No orchestra behind him, no industry friends sharing the church’s modest altar stones, Wolf comes back armed only with a handful of instruments and his friend Jack accompanying him on guitar and piano.
The lights dim and the church organ begins to hum. We all turn around to the sounds of “The Ghost Song” weaving the ghost-like figure of Wolf down the aisle in a bridal dance. He ascends the altar, draped in a long black gown, and stretches his arms wide to the final notes of his folk tale. The characteristic gothic theatrics underpinning his live performance remain unscathed.
Wolf’s signature “The Libertine”, having little of the same anger of almost 15 years ago, today gains in reverent prowess expressed in his performance. Across his career, Wolf’s been a real ratchet of identities, textures, garlands, costumes, hairstyles and colours, reinventing himself with each album, each era of his own timing and nocturnal rhythms. Festooned with biblical like gown, his hair long, he elicits the very same mystery of circus magic that’s surrounded him since his debut. “Teignmouth” falls in with a harmonious, howling, languid violin sound and the “Wind in the Wires” rendition comes to an end for now to ghostlike upbeat echoes of “Jacob’s Ladder”.
Anecdotes and stories abound and it’s in those single moments of charm, wit and direct kindness that Wolf wins over his audience. The grand and momentous “Who will?” opens to everyone bursting into laughter to tonight’s in-joke. Wolf naturally transcends the planned persona of the night and shares his elaborate performance with honesty, humour, and downplay. The epic legend of the gypsy “Damaris” tragically falling in love with Lewes feels right at home in the barren church, ancient tales all around us.
All songs are reinterpreted to piano, guitar, violin, a new harp-like instrument Wolf picked up from his friend, or a combination of these with the help of Jack. The stories are retold to new rhythms and beats. Our hearts stop momentarily to the first new song in seven years, the piano lead “Watcher”, announcing works on the new album.
With Wolf’s recent unexpected hit “The Days” featured in the end credits of the award winning British indie film by Francis Lee, God’s Own Country, Wolf closes the night to a joyous, grateful cheer from the audience. With the new chapter ahead and the new work announced, there’s no doubt we’ll see him in a sold out London show again. Our anticipation is as big as it was at London Palladiums ten years ago, and as big as is tonight.
* * *