The Leisure Society / Niall McNamee / Chris Riddle at Union Chapel 12 November 2021
It’s been two long years since The Leisure Society’s last planned gig in 2019 fell victim to Covid. I’ve never known a band sound so excited about their upcoming gig let alone the audience. But, boy, was it worth the wait.
If pop is a religion, the Union Chapel is the perfect venue. It’s not quite survived the pandemic unscathed. The choir lofts remain closed, keeping the capacity down to 900. The tea and coffee service is unavailable. There was always something particularly pleasing about sipping a coffee while at a live gig. It’s the acoustics though that mark out the chapel as something special. Songs that you’ve grown to love at home are lifted to new spine tingling and emotional levels in the church setting.
Returning to the chapel was like visiting an old friend for the first time in a while. I even remembered to bring my own cushion. There’s a reason that church services tend not to last the three hour running time of a gig and it’s to do with the hardness of the pews.
The support act was Niall McNamee, a singer songwriter with an Irish heritage. Tonight he was just one man with his guitar, with an engaging if endearingly nervous line in patter. He was born in Leicester, so he said, but his songs capture the essence of Irishness. They’re personal stories that make a romantic epic out of the most ordinary circumstances - seeing a girl on the tube, or travelling to Scotland and back. A way with words is important to the Irish and he uses them well.
Gigs are still a novelty to us. His efforts to start some audience participation (or 'anticipation' as he mis-put it, inadvertently recognising the self-conscious tension of those who hate singing along without a couple of pints in them) highlighted that we were as rusty in our roles as the performers may have been at the start of their rehearsals. We tried, we mumbled, we avoided eye contact with Niall and each other. Sorry Niall - you deserved better.
Every support act has to combat the underlying impatience of the audience for the main event. Niall kept his set short but may have mentioned a few times that he is appearing at the Water Rats in Grays Inn Road on 22nd December with a full band, including the one missing Irish music ingredient of a fiddle player. There will be worse ways to see in Christmas.
I should also mention the second support act - illustrator Chris Riddell, who sketched away throughout the evening live on a big screen. His drawings are detailed and excellent. I suspect he was the only man in the place who was focused on something other than the band!
Looking at the Leisure Society stage set during the interval was an odd sensation. The drums bear the logo of their 2019 album ‘Arrival and Departures’. The stage is cluttered. It has to accommodate eight people and instruments at some points of the show. That’s guitar, keyboards, drums, bass, violin, flute, trumpet and guest appearances on percussion. The impression was that they had all popped out to lunch two years ago and had been unable to return.
At 21:00 Nick Hemming led the band on stage. They settled themselves down. He spoke. “Hello. We’ve missed you. A lot.” They launch into ‘Arrivals and Departures’ the perfect opening song for the band and the circumstances. Underneath the intro I swear you could hear the sound of 900 people swallowing hard and stiffening their upper lips.
And then the fan favourites start to come and don’t let up all evening. They even played ‘A Short Weekend Begins With Longing’ for the man described as their angriest fan who had never heard it performed live. It was, of course, excellent. (If you’re playing requests now chaps, could we have ‘The Hungry Years’ on your next tour?)
They played two new songs ‘The World From A Window’ and an unnamed encore. They both offer proof that their songwriting ability has been enhanced, not diminished by lockdowns. They include the swooning melodies, undercurrent of sadness and genuine nostalgia of their very best songs. They also offered Christian Hardy the chance to MC the show as instruments were changed to unfamiliar tunings, and introductions were remembered.
The great thing about the Leisure Society is that, whilst you have songs from each album that you gravitate towards, there’s no filler. Any one of their songs played live sounds great. I could list the various highlights, but it’s their ability to draw out things you’ve missed in the less familiar tracks that make them special on the day. They played for an hour and a half. It felt like fifteen minutes.
They close the show with ‘A Matter Of Time’. It highlights everything that is brilliant about them. It builds and falls and contains more exuberance, energy and joy than I’ve seen for a considerable time. It’s the perfect end to a perfect show.
Thank you Leisure Society. It is so good to have you back.