Cast your mind back ten years to 2003 and the release of Patrick Wolf‘s first album Lycanthropy. Between then and the 2007 release of his third album The Magic Position, Wolf was the enfant terrible of English folktronica, dying his hair red, performing live in gold hotpants, batting away invasive questions about his sexuality and ensuring his music crossed the ocean by dabbling in string collaborations with Owen Pallett and Arcade Fire. Fast forward to 2013 and he’s settled down a lot, the elder statesman now having six studio albums under his belt, having found happiness in his personal life and his image – though still ever the dandy – is that of a much more sophisticated waistcoat and tails composer rather than a Calvin Klein teen.
With news reports describing this as the worst March Belfast has seen for fifty years and businesses being closed because of the weather conditions – some junctions even suffering traffic light blackouts – it’s touch-and-go whether tonight’s gig will go ahead. Support act Rams’ Pocket Radio pulled out two days previously because of “technical restrictions” and the snow makes it impossible for another support act to be found at such short notice. The audience, aware of the limitations, huddle in McHugh’s basement, relieved that the electricity is still on and even more relieved when Patrick appears. It’s a small set-up; he’s joined by Victoria Sutherland on violin and Willemwiebe on accordion, the choice of instruments (the stage also boasts a harp, electric piano, tenor guitar and ukulele) adding a baroque feel to the evening. There’ll be no tronica with this folk.
It begins in a serious fashion with ‘Wind In The Wires’ showcasing Wolf’s deft harp playing and sonorous voice, a hushed audience scared that they will upset the delicate weather balance if they make too much noise. A gypsy-folk version of ‘Hard Times’ both relaxes the crowd and brings them to life, the violin responsible for the recognisable riff as it repeatedly brings recognition to the faces of the audience throughout much of the evening, providing the hooks in the startlingly reworked versions. Between songs he’s a different person, his affecting voice becoming delicately-spoken and his manner almost bashful, charming awkwardness and acknowledgement of his mistakes growing into a genuine rapport with the audience as the evening progresses, by the end of the evening song introductions are prolonged as he announces yet one more spontaneous thought in a never-ending Columbo fashion.
‘Time of My Life’ is revealed to be a sparse affair, the bare bones set up revealing a few mistakes which are forgivable as Wolf’s spontaneity and need to improvise falls over itself in eagerness, losing the backing band who simply try to cling on. Mostly, the band are extremely relevant though, the accordion taking the place of a sinister synth during ‘The Libertine’, the violin bringing a wild Voltaire feel to the song; the foot-stomping finale and Wolf’s ever lower-hanging fringe bringing to mind the New Romantic era.
Encoring with ‘The City’, the whole evening is an experiment that pays off. Sixth album Sundark And Riverlight, seen by many as an unnecessary greatest hits comes alive in this intimate setting, Wolf’s heartfelt explanations of why each song was stripped back and reimagined rewrites them in our minds. And there’s not a power cut in sight.