St. George’s Church at first seems like a somewhat inappropriate location for a Bat For Lashes gig, given singer Natasha Khan’s penchant for scribing lyrics that are decidedly Pagan in tone, an assessment only exacerbated when support (and occasional collaborator) Josh T. Pearson takes the stage. Treating an eerily-quiet congregation to a set consisting almost wholly of lamentations on the absence of Christ in his life, Pearson’s songs in this environment would seem sacrilegious if he weren’t so earnest in performing them, his delivery commanding respect, or at least a hushed patience while we wait for a bolt of lightning by way of retort. In a sweeping victory for irony, the incongruity is made complete by a statue of Christ, swaying about a metre above his head.
If, however, one of the great functions of the Church was to foster a sense of community amongst all who entered, then the venue has certainly achieved it this evening. Not long after Mr Pearson closes his set with a crowd sing-along (hymn-along?) to Silent Night, Bat For Lashes take the stage, taking less than the length of their first song to show how no other gig location could generate this much intimacy or atmosphere so effortlessly.
Despite their stage garb evoking The Wicker Man, the Brighton-based group (live, Khan augments her sound with three other female musicians, perhaps recognising the difficulty that playing the keyboard, violin and broomstick – yes, really – simultaneously would present) remain superbly focused throughout, their sound tight and poised despite the copious exchange of instruments and roles. Indeed, whenever Khan banters with the crowd during the between-song lulls, there’s the sense that it’s somehow a different person to the one delivering the performance, the former timid and self-effacing, the latter seeming almost lost within the world created by the music . At the risk of overplaying the supernatural imagery irrecoverably, it’s as though the music comes from within a trance, broken by each song’s end.
If so then the same spell extends to the audience, with the ethereal beauty of songs like Horse and I not so much telling a story as weaving a mythology, whilst the nocturnal rhythms of Trophy summon the inhabitants of this dark world to a night out. Khan’s songs aren’t interested in examining our own lives or situations, and tell us nothing of her own experiences of growing up in Pakistan or her pilgrimages to San Francisco in search of the Beats: they encourage us instead to transcend our own surroundings, providing us with a rich cinematic backdrop against which our imaginations can evolve.
If there’s a problem, though, it’s that the spell must end, and often this comes too soon: structurally, the songs tend to finish before they should, the atmosphere left to seep away into the cold stone all around whilst the band swap instruments and test chords ready for the next.
But the band will develop this in time, and for now there really are no other live acts quite like this one. The album’s been commended almost universally – indeed, most of Resident’s staff numbered it amongst their albums of the year – but on stage Bat For Lashes are better still, their world expanded and made tangible beyond the limitations imposed by mere stereo sound and CD inlay images. You’ll want to stay there.
Christian Cottingham, December 2006.