The self-titled record by Australian duo Angus and Julia Stone released in 2014 was produced by legendary music man Rick Rubin. It introduced a bevy of new listeners to the singer-songwriters’ chilled out, darkly melancholy vibes and many of the album’s highlights have formed the cornerstone of their live set ever since. Tonight at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall however, not one track is performed from this record. A brave decision perhaps, but would it be one that defined the evening?
Angie McMahon has been accompanying her fellow Aussies around their home country recently and this evening is her last date before embarking on more support duties with C.W. Stoneking, as well as some intimate headline shows of her own. Playing at the Royal Albert Hall is some way to bow out then, and her social media comments emphasise the importance of the occasion when she describes how she is “shitting herself” as she prepares to take to the stage. Standing there alone in this cacophonous auditorium would be a daunting prospect for anyone but once the nervous introduction is out of the way, McMahon starts singing. Smoky, dulcet tones belie her young years; there’s a maturity to her material, a weariness perhaps in the darkly moribund themes at times but there are also occasions when her lush, almost baritone voice becomes effortlessly more buoyant. Lyrically astute, personally revealing and musically raw, Angie McMahon is a wonderfully intimate way to begin the evening in this grand, opulent venue.
Angus and Julia Stone have been on tour since the release of their fourth studio album Snow, but this is a very different set to the more orthodox one performed in the UK back in November. Clues were provided during recent shows on the continent and back in Australia; the dark, brooding material from their 2014 album was being replaced by the more summery vibes of past and current albums and on this gloriously warm and pleasant spring day in the capital, this makes complete sense, but there are still a couple of surprises along the way. For example, opening in almost complete darkness, Angus performs a hypnotically pensive version of ‘Draw Your Swords’ that swells to forbidding levels in funereal style as he painfully delivers the fatal lines “come on love, draw your swords, shoot me to the ground, you are mine, I am yours, let’s not fuck around”. Julia provides the haunting backing vocals, again cloaked in shadow. It’s grim, cinematic and totally captivating. Perhaps an evening of distilled melancholy like this would be a touch too much – ‘Snow’ arrives to lift this tenebrous introduction in a chilled and folksy fashion.
The main surprise this evening is the focus on older material. ‘Wasted’ comes from first album A Book Like This and is a wonderfully light, breezy acoustic song performed by Julia, with Angus’ subtle contributions coming from the shadows. The inclusion of a string quartet allows these intimate songs to resemble their counterparts on record more closely and the lush arrangements are simply gorgeous. It’s Angus’ turn next on the Dylan-esque ‘River Love’ and this establishes the flow of the evening. Each song provides a different focal point, a different reason to smile and a different emotion to experience. New single ‘Nothing Else’ does return to darker themes but there is something seductive about these portentous moments as the sensuous acoustics flow over us in this remarkable space.
Despite the scale of the venue there is a more personal quality to this evening’s performance. Tracks are given sprawling introductions explaining their genesis and the fragile ‘Santa Monica Dream’ allows Julia Stone to engage with the very relaxed crowd at length. This half of the show is particularly mellow; ‘Cellar Door’ has a stoner vibe to it that perhaps disguises the more serious themes of the track, and this is followed by Julia’s idiosyncratic and quirky ‘Private Lawns’. There is an epic, Deliverance-style banjo solo midway through the song and this is followed by Julia’s incredible, extended trumpet solo, which joyfully fills these majestic high ceilings.
Things started to fall into place for the band when they were living in London and recording in Fran Healy’s living room over a decade ago, and the rarely performed ‘Here We Go Again’ provides a reminder of this period. It’s a gentle, lilting composition benefiting from the swooning string quartet, making it sound like summer in a song. Lost love again returns in the form of Angus’ ‘Big Jet Plane’ and the duo ask the willing audience to turn on all their phone torches creating a celestial quality to the darkness. Meanwhile, Angus’ breathy vocals and the aching strings transport us to another plane.
The uptempo ‘Chateau’ is the perfect summer concoction to end on before the band return for an encore that once again surprises. ‘Uptown Folk’ comes from Angus’ side project Dope Lemon and is blessed with a fuzzier, more blissed out rock spirit that soars by its conclusion getting everyone on their feet. We stay there for the gentle ‘Take Me Away’. The subtle majesty of the song is enhanced as the stage is covered by a deluge of confetti that falls from above. It’s a grand and magnificent conclusion to a wonderful evening with the brother and sister duo. They have a rare ability to generate moments of uplifting beauty, even when themes may be more disconsolate.
Photos: Iain Fox – see more in our photo gallery here.