Keaton Henson At The Olympia Theatre – Review
The hallowed surroundings of Dame Street’s Olympia Theatre has long been an acid test of sorts for singer songwriters. From local heroes Damien Rice and Paddy Casey to international stars such as David Gray and Ben Howard, a headline show in the famous old venue cements one’s status as a mainstay of the genre. Next to make the step up tonight is reclusive Londoner Keaton Henson who has slowly come to prominence with relatively little mainstream exposure. Having caught a major break when Zane Lowe featured the song ‘You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are’ on his BBC Radio show in 2011, Henson has since released several albums with little marketing fanfare so filling every seat in The Olympia tonight represents something of a triumph for word-of-mouth promotion.
Last years Kinder Now album encapsulated everything special about Henson as an artist. Much like Damien Rice’s seminal album ‘O’, the record was self-written, self recorded and self produced at his own London home and stood out for its lyrical honesty and minimalistic sonic approach. In an era of ‘artists’ whose songwriting credits contain a list of names sometimes extending into double figures, Kinder Now proved that sometimes true emotional honesty comes from one man’s vision. This individual, minimal approach extends to tonight’s performance. An opulent baby grand piano takes centre stage below some fairy lights, alongside a wooden chair and guitar. These basic tools are all that Henson needs, (though the sound is augmented tonight by accompanying cellist Ren Ford who displays his prowess with a solo introduction to the show). Almost sneaking on stage unnoticed as the opening cello notes fade, Henson fingerpicks the desolate intro to ‘Sweetheart What Have You Done To Us’ to hushed silence. With a vocal style pitched between the arching falsetto of James Vincent McMorrow and the nervous drawl of Conor Oberst, Heaton sounds more like a man confessing his deepest secrets than a performer looking for affirmation. During ‘The Pugilist’ it’s striking just how adept Henson is at conjuring up tension and drama from just his guitar and cello backing.
Taking to the piano for a stunning performance of the melodic ‘Alright’, one of his more prominent tracks (it’s charming drunken karaoke-style video has racked up over a million YouTube views), the missed notes in the pre-chorus add an endearing air of fragility to the performance. Lyrically he brings a whole new meaning to the ‘confessional singer songwriter’ tag, with lyrics like “Always been a coward, you can ask my friends, I hide inside for hours” and “I only care for art and career, so scared of death I try to leave part of me here”. But before the show gets too emotionally heavy, it is punctuated by a selection of the beautiful instrumental arrangements from 2014’s Romantic Works.
Keaton Henson live shows are relatively scarce due to chronic performance anxiety. Intensely shy and so softly spoken you have to listen intently to understand his words, he hesitantly lets us know 4 songs in he is “terrified”. As reluctant a live performer as you will see (also shunning interviews and all forms of social media) this makes tonight’s occasion all the more special. ‘You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are’ is sparse, bleak and incredibly moving, and when he sings “does he know not to talk about your dad?” you feel he is reliving, through song, experiences he’d rather forget. Unlike so many of his peers, there’s no room (or desire) for song introductions, nor are there any lengthy stories to be told. Henson is as far from a raconteur as one can imagine, and tonight the songs say all he needs to.
Departing the stage after just under one hour, he leaves an audience who, given the choice, would probably have spent the entirety of this dark blustery winter night listening intently to every word. In an era where dwindling record sales are resulting in bigger, brasher and increasingly expensive live shows, tonight is a triumph of substance over style, a stellar example of the ‘less is more’ philosophy. A mesmerising night showcasing the power of music in its barest, most stripped down form.