Derry's finest returns home after a year in the spotlight
Performing in a church, particularly a working church such as Derry~Londonderry's Christ Church, a reverentially appointed neo-Gothic structure, is to a performer’s advantage. The essence of the setting ensures that all eyes are front and centre.
The stage tonight is, literally and in effect, an altar, lit by candles and garnished with flowers. Here, a performer need not battle with the ringing of tills, the clinking of glass and background chatter – the prevalent mood is one of respectful observance. Sit quiet and listen. All praise be to SOAK.
The 18-year-old local girl, real name Bridie Monds-Watson, has been hyped as 'one to watch', the 'next big thing' waiting to break. Already with several singles and EPs to her name, her debut album is due out next year on the iconic Rough Trade records. This is her first solo headlining tour, and she returns to Derry for her first full show here in a year.
Opening act, Gabriel Paschal Blake, is a 19-year-old native of nearby Letterkenny. He plays a suite of difficult to define songs, drenched in melancholy, death, darkness and despair. Dissonant and discordant electric guitar notes and chords, often echoed and looped through effects pedals, merge one upon the other in a Gothic soundtrack.
Blake is lyrical and literate, and big on imagery, at one point describing 'dancing with frogs and drinking with dogs'. His voice, at times noticeably nervous, can climb to a banshee wail, doing raw justice to lines like 'Does everyone die the same way?' and 'We cried into towels until our eyes bled raw'.
Oftentimes he moves away from the mic, stepping to the side or forward, singing and whispering to the audience, exorcising the darkest of demons. The purplish and greenish glow cast by the lighting throws Blake's elongated shadow upon the wall.
He addresses the audience towards the end of his set to explain that he is the son of an undertaker and has spent much time in churches keeping the company of corpses. Blake is a young man with a certain talent, and one can’t help being both intrigued by his art yet somehow concerned for his wellbeing...
SOAK, in comparison, is a veritable happy clappy preacher. Dressed all in black, tousled fringe flopping over half of her face, she is small in stature but big on personality. She is also comfortable on stage, disarmingly witty, good humoured and charming.
Her between song banter sets a bewitching contrast to the quiet design of her music; she too clutches a suitcase of songs full of melancholic youthful angst.
After having been catapulted into the public consciousness following Derry~Londonderry's year as UK City of Culture, she casually regales us with tales of being invited to a Burberry launch party 'rocking up in hoodie and bad shoes', and partying in the company of the Beckhams. She also invites the audience to an after show party in a bar where she will DJ.
The epithets come easy when describing SOAK. Kooky and quintessentially ethereal, her songs are intricate and maturely crafted. After her opening number she swaps electric guitar for acoustic, and she is as comfortable performing with either.
Second song in, the enchantingly fragile 'Sea Creatures', is a wistful delight – no wonder it sold her to an industry currently brimming over with wonderful young singer-songwriters.
Moving through some new numbers from her forthcoming album, such as 'Worry', 'Blind' and the excellent 'Shovels', the subjects in her writing become clear – this is a teenager concerned with mistakes, regret and the transitory nature of friendship.
The themes are constant, as is the downbeat musical template. In truth, much of SOAK's songs sound similar, even if her current single, 'B a noBody', takes the tempo up ever so slightly. In order to maintain interest, this short set may have benefited from an additional musician or two to flesh out the soundscape and take it off on an occasional tangent or musical meander.
Introducing her closing number, SOAK roguishly reminds us that loud and prolonged applause is required if it is not to be her final song, and she is rapturously rewarded. Returning for her encore, she playfully blows bubbles – this is, after all, a homecoming show.
The tempo is enlivened with 'Reckless Behaviour', and she even entices a sing-a-long chorus. Considering that which has gone before, this is, to all intents and purposes, a full on, four to the floor foot-stomper. And for her final, final song, 'Oh Brother', SOAK goes electric once again.
On the evidence of this intimate and entertaining performance, SOAK deserves her burgeoning reputation as a young artist with a fledgling and promising career ahead of her. She should handle it well, though the sonics could do with a shake-up.