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Vashti Bunyan


GLEN JOHNSON:  Since returning from 30 years of self-imposed exile in 2001, Vashti Bunyan hasn't lost any time playing catch up. The re-issue of her then only album, Just Another Diamond Day, originally released in 1970 to little fanfare, has been subsequently hailed as a bona fide lost classic and a new generation of ‘freak folk’ - Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom amongst them – now cite her as a key influence. Collaborations with Piano Magic and Animal Collective were followed, in 2005, by a hitherto inconceivable album of new songs, Lookaftering.  Since then, Vashti hasn't sat still for a moment, performing live everywhere from London to Japan and back again, unveiling these beautiful songs-thought-lost to a world that is now, finally, listening. 

Tonight she settles like a feather in the Union Chapel, a venue so reverent you would think it were made for her and had laid in waiting all this time like an unopened book. 

This is the second time I've seen Vashti on a stage.  The first, at the Home Fires festival in 2006, had me stretched on tenterhooks.  She seemed so fragile, so meek, that I thought the audience might break her. I needn't have worried. In this age of unabashedly aggressive self-promotion, her humility and genuine modesty simply bewitched the entire room. 

And then there was that voice; an instrument she seemed to have carefully wrapped in tissue paper three decades earlier and stored away in an attic. It remains glass delicate, pure as a stream; a beautiful, pastoral, quintessentially English voice, the like of which you never hear any more, but one which immediately sparks nostalgia for less cluttered, more innocent times. 

Tonight, that voice is accompanied by Vashti’s guitar and a dutiful, versatile troupe who switch quietly between piano, piccolo, violin, kalimba and glockenspiel, carefully adding beautiful flourishes to songs written about Vashti's children, long ago lovers and, on 'Wayward’, housework.  "I've never liked it…" she sighs, "…never will."

To her left, guitarist Gareth Dickson’s fluid picking style echoes that of his unabashed inspiration, Nick Drake. One of Drake’s contemporaries, Robert Kirby, writer of wonderful string arrangements for both Drake and Bunyan, is honoured with a perfect rendition of 'Rainbow River' resplendently couched in Kirby’s arrangement for recorder quartet. It's a touching moment, particularly for Vashti, who'd talked with Kirby only a few months before his untimely death in the hope that they'd work together again. The air is ripe with nostalgia and ghosts.

As always at this most numinous venue, the audience is remarkably attentive, pious even - something that can unsettle the most seasoned artist.  When an audience member shouts "Thank you!" after a sublime 'Glow Worms,' Vashti almost falls off her seat.  "What?" she yells back, grasping the hand in the darkness. "Thank you!" it rings again. 

She's waited a long, long time for these thank yous.  On the evidence of new songs, 'Here' and 'Across The Water,' they won't be the last. 

(Vashti Bunyan played The Union Chapel 11 April 2010)

 

 

 

 

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