At the start of June, Cardiff played host to an event that was the first of its kind for the city, the inaugural Festival of Voice, which saw a number of great musicians come to play across various spaces over the course of nine days. Among the many different acts that had been scheduled to play was Keaton Henson, known to most as the originator for the saddest songs in the world and a fine musical talent, so there couldn’t have been much surprise that this was one of the more popular events of the festival.
Due to play in the nostalgic New Theatre, a venue that felt appropriately eccentric for this performer, there was a palpable sense of expectation among the attendees as everybody settled themselves into the cramped seating. As the lights dimmed, five musicians came onto a stage which had been set up in – perhaps unsurprisingly – a minimalist fashion: one grand piano positioned so that the player’s back would face the crowd, seats for the five and a spare seat at the front. None of those five were Henson, instead they were his trusted collaborators who proceeded to play a classical composition on strings, making an unexpected introduction to the gig and setting the scene for Henson to arrive in a typically understated manner.
As the string section cooled their way down to the conclusion of their piece, out from the side of the stage shuffled a monochromatic man, instantly recognisable with the shoulder length, slicked back hair and frail face. Unlike a normal gig, there was no reaction from the crowd at the sight of Keaton Henson, perhaps a symptom of hosting a concert in a theatre, but ultimately I think that the quieting effect the theatre had on the crowd was something he appreciated as it was bluntly clear how much attention was being paid to his performance.
Over the course of the next hour or so, the ensemble on-stage moved through a body of work that reflected the old, the different and the new in Keaton Henson’s music: there were a couple of his classical compositions performed, but the bulk of the set was a combination of well-established classics (the likes of Small Hands and You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are understandably drew pleasured murmurings from the crowd once they realised which song was being played next) and some new offerings. There were a few ropey moments, particularly with what is arguably Keaton Henson’s most recognisable – and, as a result, most eagerly anticipated – song, Small Hands, which involved a pantomime-esque exchange between Henson and the crowd as he tried to remember the lyrics.
For most people, the idea of seeing a band or artist who then proceeds to fluff their lines about four or five times would draw angered reactions, but there’s a profound relationship with Keaton Henson and his fans. There is a genuine empathy toward the difficulty he has with what he does, and for a lot of the people that enjoy his music it is this difficulty which elevates his music and gives it a fragile beauty; we probably could have spent the whole night confirming the lyrics and reverting back to the start of the song and nobody there would have cared.
When the set drew to a close, Henson was quick to acknowledge the opportunity and patience that had been shown to him, a suitably polite mark of respect that served as his goodbye. A brief departure from the stage gave way to the encore, which provided the stand out moment of the night – a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, in the style of Jeff Buckley. On paper it is a song that’s been done to death, but on this occasion some of the timelessness of that song was restored, and as the song met its conclusion Henson hurriedly departed the stage again only for the crowd to respond this time with a standing ovation.
While the whole Festival of Voice has left the feeling that its organisers missed a golden opportunity to better promote such a great event, the show on Park Place could not be described as anything other than a success – without a doubt, this was a gig in the history of Cardiff’s live music scene which will linger fondly in the memory of those who were there.
Words by Sion Ford