The Union Chapel on Upper Street is one of North London’s survivors. Twenty-odd years ago it was just a slightly dilapidated church on a busy road, in need of a bit of love. Following extensive restoration and the attentions of the music industries brightest and best, it’s now both a functioning church and a flourishing venue. I’ve seen some great gigs in the grand surroundings of the main hall, but before tonight I had no idea that there was also a bar upstairs.
Stepping through an archway next to the main entrance, we might as well have stepped back in time as we leave the traffic of Upper Street behind and follow a dimly lit flagstone passage to a wooden staircase lined with paintings, and a heavy wooden door at the top. The bar itself is gorgeous – all wooden beams, tea lights and sheaves of flowers, with a ragtag collection of sofas, chairs and benches already filling up in front of the stage. It’s at once intimate and traditional, like a cross between a Thomas Hardy novel and an episode of Friends.
Opening act Samuel Taylor is already playing to a small but attentive audience. Alone on stage with just a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, he strums his way through a set full of jaunty folk pop and the odd ballad, pausing only for an anecdote about the kind of drunk you really only meet on a night bus (hey, we’ve all been there). The overall impression is Dylan by way of Sheffield, and well worth checking out in the future.
One thing I must say about Tom Hickox – he knows the importance of detail. If the beautifully dressed stage weren’t enough, punters can help themselves to an ‘Order of Service’ at the door, merchandise is displayed in a vintage leather suitcase, and as they take the stage it’s clear that both he and his band appreciate the power of a good suit.
Opener ‘The Angel of the North’ layers steel guitar and organ over strings, finished off by Hickox’s rich voice. With the chairs and benches filled, the atmosphere in the bar is hushed and thoughtful, and this carries through to ‘The Pretty Pride of Russia’, which sees Hickox’s piano skipping over a wash of violins and double bass before giving way to an almost military snare drum.
It’s a particularly British sound, and one that offers more than a passing nod to Richard Hawley. So it seems appropriate when Hickox stops to share stories of recording with Hawley’s band and his producer Colin Elliot; of a studio visit and guest solo from the man himself; of matching him pint for pint in the pub afterwards. Hawley is well known for teaming up with artists he admires, and as the jaunty ‘Out of the Warzone’ plays out over country-tinged violin it’s easy to imagine him strumming along.
There’s a slight shift for ‘Your Baby Was Asleep’, which starts with a ghostly, almost Jeff Buckley-esque piano introduction before the rest of the band comes in. It sounds like the sea, sweeping and rolling before dying out on a single bowed bass note.
But the real highlight of the evening for me comes in the shape of ‘White Roses Red’. Kicking off on electric guitar, it’s the heaviest song of the set. It makes me think of Murder Ballads-era Nick Cave – full of purpose and intent, and almost sinister in tone.
The next few songs see Hickox pulling back a touch, but there’s still plenty to enjoy. ‘Let Me Be Your Lover’ is an earnest, unabashed love song of a sort that seems quite rare in these cynical times, and the eerie, string-led opening of ‘A Normal Boy’ sounds like a Grimm Brothers fairytale set to music. The only real inter-song chat (and mild, good-natured heckling) comes as Hickox introduces ‘The Lisbon Maru’, which tells the true story of a torpedoed Japanese POW ship and gets a huge cheer from the audience – this is clearly a favourite of theirs, and with good reason. The set plays out on the elegiac ‘Good Night’, with guitars and strings in full swing. It’s a simple, soaring paean to lost friends, and a powerful end to the main set.
But it’s not the end of the night yet, and after a quick break Hickox is back on stage for a brief encore of covers. Keeping it simple with just guitar, piano and the occasional intruding siren from outside, they start with a cover of Eels’ ‘Railroad Man’. It’s not a song I’ve heard before but it’s a great choice – sweet and simple and innocent and sincere, and totally in keeping with the rest of the night. More surprising is the final song of the night, as Hickox steps out from behind the piano to sing folk standard ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’. It’s a lovely, contemplative version of a song that can be a bit overwrought, and a gorgeous end to the evening.
This has been one of the coziest gigs I’ve been to in a while, and as we leave the bar, well-wishers are already queuing up at the tiny merchandise table to chat with Hickox, who seems genuinely happy to meet every last one of them. The bustle of Upper Street seems to be a whole world away, but we stumble back through the flagstone alley (and back into the cynical twenty-first century) with smiles on our faces.