Even as we move to ever more secular society, it’s amazing what sitting in a pew will do to people. The Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green has become a semi-regular venue by now yet, despite all the trappings of a rock ‘n’ roll show, a hushed atmosphere has fallen on the sell out crowd – keeping chat to a bare minimum. Even that stops instantly when three musicians appear in the aisle and begin to sing and play, quietly at first but building to a crescendo. It’s been a while since Ham Sandwich have appeared as musically and visually naked as this, a band who have invested in adding extra elements to their live show, culminating in February’s celebratory affair at the Academy. Yet here they are shorn of the confetti, the giant balloons and the volume.
To compensate, however, they’ve brought a few friends. By the end of the first few songs there are eight people on stage, the expanded line-up that now seems to be their default setting and featuring the addition of keyboards, trumpet and violin. Crucially, they sound, not like an indie band trying to play unplugged but a group discovering their wings and a whole new world of possibilities. Each song is stripped back to its roots and rebuilt in a slightly different image. There’s a richness of sound but none of the energy is lost, at times reminding you of Chumbawamba at their Anarchy era peak.
If we had a problem with the Academy show it was a slight crassness in their stage persona, but tonight there are no such grumbles. Confined by the circumstances, the location and a presumed lack of alcohol, Podge is more effective than ever, warming up the initially reticent atmosphere with charming and engaging banter. Niamh too is restricted, this time in terms of space, yet turns in a performance that surely marks her as one of the best frontperson in the country. Vocally stunning, she controls the night with the smallest gesture and leaves us breathless on throbbing cover of ‘I Feel Love’.
With a stack of songs strong enough to fill the hour with ease, Ham Sandwich leave us with applause filling the sacred space and Niamh declaring this to be one of her favourite moments in the band ever. If the Academy show and upcoming festival slots represent some sort of victory lap following White Fox‘s difficult birth, this needs to be the moment that they look to the future. This combination of personalities, musical skills and talent is too good not to take further. The genie is out of the bottle and Ham Sandwich can’t put it back in, even if they might want to.
Photos by Paulo Gonçalves