Icily cold and bible-blackly dark, we step down from the train into the night and walk towards the light and warmth of the beautiful St Pancras Old Church.
St Pancras Old Church, one of the oldest in London, if not Britain, impressively stands with its ancient artefact, the oldest ever discovered in Camden – the altar. Its winding, broadly generous steps lead up from elaborate iron gates to large, ornate doors. However, upon entering, it reveals itself as a diminutive space, a reverse Tardis; warm and welcoming, softly lit by candlelight, it immediately casts a feeling of ambiance and specialness upon us.
We sit there, for a delicious contemplative moment, before Murray A Lightburn’s support Athena Lim makes her way, almost apologetically, to the front of the audience, who are quietly seated in the church chairs, as if there for mass. Anthea tentatively says hello, explains that she has a sore throat and that tonight she is going to sing some ‘stripped back versions’ of her songs on her ‘travel-sized guitar’ and we were intrigued… what on earth was a travel sized guitar?
Athena’s unusual, erudite but charming world view is explained through her music. Finger picking and gently strumming her way through simple chord structures, she enchants us with her softly spoken, clear-as-a-bell toned voice. She sings to us, in these mellifluous tones, ideas of friends who dedicate their life to the planet, resilience of the human spirit regardless of ‘heaviness around’…and goodbyes. The general feel might be described as sixties folk, with reminisces perhaps of early Bob Dylan or Velvet Underground – and it is very pleasant to listen to, here in this softly glowing, cosy, spirit-filled place. Four songs in and Athena’s now fully warmed up voice takes on a richer, fuller tone (despite a brief coughing fit) as she grows in confidence to explore the gorgeous acoustic by increasing her dynamic, timbre and tone.
With a song entitled, “Let’s Dance”, she strays from her previous structure of 3 chords and sol-fa notation with a crescendo and decrescendo to end her short but spell-binding set with fast strumming, Spanish-style guitar playing and strong, clear, fortissimo pleas to “kiss me- you make me feel alive” to the highly appreciative and now toasty-warm crowd. What a delightful start that was!
After a brief interlude for refreshments and merchandise browsing, which included humorous exchanges over extra-small t-shirts (much to the amusement of the fans, who quipped to Lightburn’s slightly confused daughter selling them, ‘This is London, darling! No one’s extra-small here!’), the cantata begins.
Musicians, including a string quartet and a classical guitarist, surround Murray A. Lightburn as he sings ‘The Only One I Want to Hear’ with gentle classical guitar accompaniment, featuring a beautifully played solo. His golden voice, softly vibratoed, takes on a mellow feel as he continues with ‘Dumpster Gold’ and ‘In the Kingdom of Heaven,’ the string players enriching the string players (Lisa and Mike on fiddle, Charlie on viola and Will on ‘cello) joining Murray’s and Steve’s guitars to create a perfectly balanced and blended sound- rich, warm and comforting.
Crunchy chords on the strings, played legato, are joined by Murray’s soft strumming on guitar, the strings echoing the vocal refrain “You started young, no education” before harmonising in an improvised, free style. After an abrupt finish, applause is generous, warm and effusive, matching the mood in St Pancras Old Church this evening. This place has a timeless feel, a sense of venerable, peaceful serenity combined with energy, purpose and significance- a perfect place for music.
Listening to the next song, Fan Fiction (Ballad of a Genius) followed by Bellville Blues, we are mesmerised by Murray’s emotive plea “I need you… to save me from myself”. The sound is full and the words evocative, his velvety voice ringing out strong and true; forte then skilfully subito piano, an expertly executed technique. Murray’s communication with the audience is emphatic, confident, reassuring. He knows he is amongst dear friends. Congeniality, shared understanding and well- love, actually- are in the air tonight here in Kings Cross.
Overlaid on suspended and diminished chords; repetitive, rhythmic and tender, Murray’s notes weave their way into every crevice of this sacred space. Going up into the organ loft, the sound is even better. Resonant and rich, the interesting and sophisticated chords and modulating key changes fill the space as Lightburn performs You are my Universe followed by I Give Up. In a contrasting time signature (3/4) his mellow, soothing legato tones are underpinned by fast-moving quavers and semiquavers from the strings; an unusual combination but one that works so aesthetically.
The quartet and Steve the classical guitarist leave the performance area, leaving Murray to perform the first of four The Dears songs, Lights Off, followed by: Ticket to Immortality, You and I are a Bunch of Losers and Pinned Together, Falling Apart– and the audience are beside themselves with adoration. They know and love this man and his music!
These well-loved songs showcase Murray’s impressive vocal range and his ability to communicate and fully connect to his people. He is totally at ease, utterly at home and completely confident as a solo artist; would it even be acceptable to say that we, at 1st 3, enjoy his music the most presented this way? His lyrics, so uplifting, so optimistic (“I’m a positive guy,” he tells us-“a glass half full kinda guy”) are the stuff of loving life, of making every moment matter, of embracing opportunity.
All too soon, the end is nigh and after singing the title song of his solo album Once Upon a Time in Montreal, the evening finishes with Girl You’ve Got to Let Me Go (he knows!) and When They See Me……. We are very glad we did.
Murray A Lightburn played St Pancras Old Church Friday 1st December 2023- support from Athena