So, Evening Hymns in Durham. No, not evensong in the cathedral, even if this is something we do attend now and then, if only because that gorgeous space lit by the setting sun as it hits the west window is enough to give more than a hint at transcendence to any choir.
But last Wednesday I was heading on my usual short cut on the backroads crossing the high country of the Land of the Prince Bishops to hear the singer-known-as Evening Hymns at a venue I had not been to before called, believe it or not, the Old Cinema Launderette.
I had stumbled on Canadian Jonas Bonnetta’s third album, his second as Evening Hymns (he wanted to get away from the singer/songwriter descriptor), and found it, very much despite myself – the album is called Spectral Dusk, after all, the cover is all high misty cloudscape, you can hear campfires and the popping of ice in bourbon behind the songs, it was recorded in a log cabin in Northern Ontario – intriguing at first, then pretty damn good. Then very damn good. A little background research to give myself some context came up with a review of the first Evening Hymn’s album, the even more off-puttingly entitled Spirit Guides, that summed up my reaction:
‘Why is Jonas Bonnetta so damn disarming? His debut full length as Evening Hymns—essentially a fleshed-out version of his real-monikered earlier release—oozes a level of granola that could cause discomfort for hyper-aware, self-conscious indie rock fans; the album is called Spirit Guides and much of the lyrical content is about the forest and there’s a full track just of a rain storm and have you seen that eerie, foggy mountain on the cover? Somehow, though, there isn’t a pretentious note on this record.’
So much for the Torontoist; I thought I’d try the lad out live, at one of the most under-advertised gigs of the year, at the afore-mentioned Old Cinema Launderette.
Yes indeed, I pulled up in front of, what else in Gilesgate, Durham, but a launderette. I’m not sure what I expected from the venue’s name, but a real live working launderette, with a closed sign at 8:30 PM was, for some reason, not what I expected. I went to the convenience store next door, and the man at the counter assured me that yes, this was it, and it was open. Just push the door. Which I did.
And entered the most gorgeous retro-chic Launderette in the world: a tiny desk, where – and I’m still not kidding – a fiftyish-looking man introduced himself as Mr Wishy-Washy, and confirmed that my phone booking was in order. I could order coffee or tea or water, or I could go next door to the convenience store and buy some alcohol in a bottle or tine, and he would give me a glass.
The room was otherwise entirely surrounded by huge, retro washing machines, boxes of Daz and Ariel standing on them between an array of retro lamps under retro lampshades, a scene to delight David Byrne at the height of his Stop Making Sense tour. Between one wall of machines, a narrow corridor lined with more machines opened out into a tiny space surrounded by more machines. In it there were about 8 chairs, all occupied, and so I squeezed onto the floor of the corridor between a lovely audience of, for the most part, young, retro-rigged out, serious listeners. We’re talking about fifteen to eighteen people tops, and that meant the Old Cinema Launderette was packed.
Old Cinema? The explanation – and history – is online: the tiny Crescent Cinema of Gilesgate Moor, Durham was opened in 1928 with a capacity of 320 seats. In 1941 it changed its name to the Rex under new management. It closed in January 1958 and the last film to grace the screen was the action packed movie Eagle Squadron. The posters on the walls showcased the cinematic history of the Rex alongside a selection of vintage washing-related advertising.
A perfectly logical set of associations, see?
And a lesson to any one complaining about putting on marginal live music: just make your venue a launderette by day and a – rather select – gig space by night. I just loved it. And Mr Wishy-Washy, balding, big-shirted, ever the most considerate of hosts.
And Evening Hymns. Fresh from gigs in Poland via Glasgow the night before, thin, big-bearded, crooked-teethed Jonas admitted this was the strangest venue he’d ever played as a 60s reading lamp was moved closer to provide the stage lighting, and his truly beautiful partner and backing singer Sylvie Smith agreed. He apologised for the fact that there was nowhere for their drum kit, but James Bunton (of Ohbijou), who played percussion, second and lead guitar, and a tiny, ancient synth which produced remarkably effective effects, said that when they found they were playing their second to last gig of a two month tour in a launderette, he ‘teared up’; clean clothes, WiFi and the offer of fish and chips had entirely overwhelmed them.
No vocal amplification, of course, but the three band members pitched it all perfectly: quiet, intimate, delicate new folk, with just the right amount of atmospherics (Mickey Newbury stopping short of Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast), and a sincerity that, just one note off, would cloy (Spectral Dusk is a song cycle meditating on the recent death of Bonnetta’s father, of all things to dump on an audience or a listener) to the nth degree. But he stays just the right side of that note throughout, producing a tightrope act I found mesmerising. One line that caught it all for me was from ‘You And Jake,’ a song about the better relationship his brother seemed to have with his father: ‘You taught me how to be a working man / now I'm gonna work on you.’ High confessional mode to be sure, but smudged just the right amount around its lo-fi edges, and a lot of blackness leaks into the cabin in the forest type settings for the songs.
Spectral Dust has only just made it to the UK via a release on the Tin Angel label (we like them a lot said Jonas to me afterwards), and Spirit Guides I could only get from him. But they’re albums well worth seeking out, with contributions from a rotating collective of musicians from, in addition to the already-noted Ohbijou, The Wooden Sky, The Burning Hell, The D’Urbervilles and Forest City Lovers.
Bonnetta himself says he wanted to create ‘spaces for reflection, rather than bombarding the listener simply with eleven crisp songs. This is an important element of listening to music, which is now missing...’ Well, he gets that right on the albums, and the Old Cinema Launderette certainly helped him do it live last Wednesday.