‘Classically trained’ is a phrase to strike fear into the heart of any popular music fan and Agnes Obel’s performance tonight – in which she plays a grand piano and sings, accompanied by a cellist and violinist – does start off beset by the reverence and tension of a formal recital. Chamber music is not the same as chamber pop. Happily, as when she appeared here at Vicar Street two years ago, the vibe loosens up as the show progresses, until the talented Danish songstress is flirting coyly with the audience by the end.
The setlist is nicely almost evenly divided between 2011’s debut Philharmonics and the recently released Aventine, six songs from the former and seven from the latter. To keep things fresh, some of the older pieces, for example ‘On Powdered Ground’, are presented in striking new arrangements. A request to the audience for a woollen scarf, to act as a mute on the piano strings for the title track of ‘Aventine’, is the icebreaker, by which time we’re at the halfway point. ‘By The Riverside’ is dedicated to “the Dubliners”, and there are complimentary remarks about how she always wants to move here whenever she comes here, because the place is both a city and a village. She even ventures to complain about the lack of heckling, which was a feature of her past appearances here, as an appropriate prelude to ‘Words Are Dead’ – which, of course, opens the floodgates.
As she becomes more relaxed, it’s possible to see why she wouldn’t have been attracted to pursuing a career in even contemporary classical music. She’s a songwriter, after all. That cover of John Cale’s ‘I Keep A Close Watch’ on Philharmonics was a good indication of where she’s coming from, and going to – although I suspect it’ll be a cold day in hell before she’s chopping the heads off of chickens. Despite the increasing levity, the musical mood remains crepuscular, autumnal, haunting: winter is coming.
For the encore, she abandons an attempted rendition of ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ after the first line, unable to control her laughter after tumbling to the onanistic implications of her introduction, “This is a song about having a good time by yourself”, in favour of her cover of Karen Dalton’s ‘Katie Cruel’ (actually a traditional Scottish song, which also served as her closer at that show two years ago) because, jokingly, “It’s about alcoholism”. What began with a certain distance and chill and vaguely stilted, winds up warm and intimate and mildly exuberant. I know it ain’t rock’n’roll, but I like it.