Patrick Wolf, St George’s Church, Brighton
Monday 26 November 2007, The Independent
The irony can’t have gone unnoticed as Patrick Wolf walked through the audience to the stage wearing an embellished approximation of a Roman soldier’s helmet. The venue is, after all, a Victorian church clearly readying itself for Christmas celebrations.
It’s an irony given poignancy by the song Wolf chooses to sing, a new number with the repeated hook “peacock die” and a plea for “divine intervention” to “fuel our reinvention”. Accompanied only by piano, the song’s anti-war themes are a rare moment of awareness in a performance that’s a mix of whimsical self-absorption and naive egotism.
The 23-year-old singer-songwriter inhabits similar territory to that of contemporary neo-folk revivalists like Devendra Banhart – irony-free music characterised by the honesty of “real” instruments (no sequencing) and emotion.
But here, it’s the empty emotion of allusion to a cause, the kind of off-the-peg spirituality that makes these songs perfect for technology adverts. Still, it’s an effect he does very well.
Wolf plays solo, bar the occasional accompaniment of a synth delivering simple arpeggios. Moving from plucked viola to hammered piano and on to strummed ukulele, he relishes the closeness of a crowd who beg him to play old faves.
But it is with his older songs that his musical weaknesses are clearest. “Wind in the Wires” displays a tendency for clichéd melody and teenage poetry with its descriptions of the “wild electricity” of a storm. The metaphor, if there is one, is lost in the clumsy lyricism.
At times the medieval minstrel, at others the mystical folk poet, Wolf’s is an insular show that invites us into his world. Highlights include the gorgeous “Stars”, the touching “Augustine” and the stunning new song “The Days”, which locates a journey through London in piano motifs that echo the soundtrack work of Ryuichi Sakamoto.
His cover of “Moon River” supplies a link to the show-tune influences of his songs, yet this only adds to the overall effect of self-centred emptiness. Wolf is a troubadour with an adoring audience living out some Sixties folk happening but without the politics.
This is why that Roman-helmeted display is so powerful. In a set all about “me”, the song is focused on a real cause – and he sounds all the more empowered for it. Shame that this sole moment of awareness came in the encore.