Saint Sister – Christchurch Cathedral – Review
Originality is a trait that, while highly sought and cherished, is not particularly common in modern music. Some theorise that every listenable chord progression has been played out, every sonic identity already used and re-hashed over the past 60 years. With a captivating fusion of Celtic folk, trip-hop beats and modern electronic flourishes, Morgan McIntyre and Gemma Doherty’s Saint Sister disregard such claims. Having released their debut Madrid EP last year to huge critical praise, the duo utilise a sound largely built around glistening harp tones (one of popular music’s most underused instruments), skilfully combining a plethora of diverse musical genres to create something you’ve never heard before. Tonight’s show in the gorgeous surroundings of Christchurch Cathedral, the band’s largest headline show to date, draws in a capacity crowd encompassing a wide age range.
Prior to the main act, Belfast singer-songwriter Ciaran Lavery warms the audience with his own headline-worthy slot. The Belfast troubadour’s set oozes class, performed with a 3-piece setup that sounds far greater than the sum of its parts as an accompanying violinist/pianist and lead guitarist flank the singer whilst providing some gorgeous harmonies. Lavery’s ‘Ray Lamontagne meets Damien Rice’ vocals effortlessly glide from throaty to hushed throughout, with single ‘Return To Form’ proving a particular highlight.
Saint Sister step onstage to welcoming applause, starting as they mean to continue with the hauntingly atmospheric ‘Cold Feet’ sounding like a reigned-in version of Florence & The Machine as they sing ‘Darling, can you stop your hands from shaking’? Thankfully, the sacred setting results in near-perfect silence throughout the night, something less likely in some of the city’s other music venues. ‘Half Awake’ makes use of a looping synthetic garage beat and serves as the perfect example of their ‘less is more’ approach, while the dreamy ‘Castles’ has an lulling ethereal quality that highlights just how well both voices work together as the walls of the cathedral are illuminated by a series of projections lending another atmospheric element to the show. The duo give their own take on The Divine Comedy’s ‘Songs Of Love’, injecting their own sense of originality by utilising the canon technique of vocals entering at delayed intervals which helps the stripped down arrangement sound altogether more full.
While they may only have one EP and one single release to their name thus far, the abundance of unreleased material performed tonight is every bit as captivating as the more familiar songs. The band make the most of their predominantly 2-piece setup, with each member adding percussive flourishes on both the wooden base of the harp, and the cymbal placed between them onstage. Nor are they afraid of sonic experimentation, with the use of vocoders and vocal loops, most prominently featured during the glorious closing coda of ‘Versions Of Hate’, while New B-side ‘Corpses’ is made more poignant by the fact it is being performed in such a historical setting with a crypt on the floor below.
A special mention must also go to tonight’s production with a subtle smoke machine, an effective selection of stage lights and some hypnotising wall projections lending a special atmosphere to the event without ever threatening to overpower the musicians on stage. It ties in perfectly with the band’s own fondness for minimalism. Wrapping things up with the stop-start electro beats and operatic vocals of debut single ‘Madrid’, the band prove they also pack a lyrical punch with lines like “I’m glad I don’t know where you go whenever you’re lonely, I would only meet you there.”
Saint Sister impressively manage to at times sound like something from the distant past while also somehow sounding futuristic, often within the same song. It’s a performance no-one really wants to come to an end, not least the band themselves. With two excellent acts sharing the stage, a magical venue perfectly suited to the style of music, and an enchanting atmosphere helped by an attentive respectful audience, tonight proves to be one of the true standout Irish gigs of 2016.