Matthew Houck @ St Pancras Old Church, London 30.01.13

With its dimly lit stage and imposing religious iconography adorning the walls, first impressions as you walk into the small St Pancras Old Church are that of ominousness. Forget the amiable crowd chatter and friendly staff, it’s the dark outlines of instruments and statues that turn the walls into a kind of shadow-play that will visually compliment tonight’s set by Alabama native and now Brooklyn resident Matthew Houck.

Jan 30th, 2013 at St Pancras Old Church, London / By Lewie Peckham
Matthew Houck @ St Pancras Old Church, London 30.01.13 Better known by his band name Phosphorescent, Matthew Houck received critical acclaim with 2010’s Here’s to Taking it Easy. With the albums incorporation of Memphis soul and vibrant horn led arrangements it bought Houck’s songwriting to a wider audience after landing on many end-of-year lists. Phosphorescent’s newest album Muchacho seems to hold further experimentation with recently released song ‘Song for Zula’ infusing its gorgeous melody with drum loops and gentle Album Leaf-esque electronica. It’s a record that might even see Phosphorescent enter Bon Iver levels of commercial adoration with it’s release next month.

Tonight’s sold out performance is a subdued affair in keeping with the reverence of his surroundings, Houck (backed tonight by a sole pianist) plays an intimate set of new and older songs. The percussive, reverbed strumming of his Jazzmaster leads the first song ‘Muchacho’s Tune’ over a hushed audience. A country waltz featuring the confessional line “I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool” it’s an emotionally honest starter and sets the tone perfectly for this evening. The aforementioned ‘Song for Zula’ is transformed into a stunning, sparse country ballad with pianist Jo’s graceful keys and swooning backing vocals complimenting Matthew Houck’s soaring voice, it’s a worthy replacement to the album version’s electronic swell.

Tonight isn’t just a showcase for the new album however as older songs like ‘My Dove, My Lamb’ and ‘Ms Juliette Row’ are played with graceful respect, the gentle guitar and piano chords and melodies washing over those in attendance and softly caressing the walls of the church. Houck’s voice throughout is a joy to be in the presence of. Whether building up to a powerful bellow or sung in a naked near whisper, it’s a voice that packs the same emotional tremble as fellow alt-country veteran Will Oldham, a voice that commands attention without making demand. One of tonight’s (many) highlights occurs at the end of ‘Wolves’ as Houck loops his voice over and over until it becomes an imposing choir of mournful American gothic. The after effects are stunning and leave many in the audience open mouthed in astonishment.

Houck as a performer is far from introverted, interacting with the crowd and bandmate Jo with warmth and laid back good humour. Laughing through the false start of a mid-set cover of ‘Storms Never Last’ by Waylon Jennings it’s this easy going nature that makes Matthew Houck’s set as friendly and informal as it is intimate.

As it is only January it might feel too early to start throwing Gig of the Year hype with abandon at tonight’s show but the next twelve months are going to have to work hard to beat the glorious sermon given here tonight by Phosphorescent.