Olivia Chaney


Tonight is my first trip to the Stoller Hall, which only opened in 2017 and is situated sort of in the inside corner of the L-shape formed by Victoria Station and the Manchester Arena. The building is part of Chetham’s School of Music, and what a delightful place it is for an evening of live music. It’s the sleek and noble young lion alongside the elephantine Arena, the two venues offering entirely contrasting experiences.

Fittingly, my Stoller début is for a gig featuring a Chetham’s alumna. English folk musician and singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney is back in a city she knows well for a date as part of a series of UK and Ireland stops this month. Although, as she tells us tonight, she considers herself a southerner, northern England has played a significant role in her life because, aside from the schooling, she wrote last year’s album, Shelter, in a North Yorkshire Moors cottage built in the 1700s and with no electricity or running water.

As well as her own songs, some of the music Chaney plays in her live sets are as old or even older than that cottage. ‘O Solitude’, for example, performed tonight by Chaney on finger-picked acoustic guitar and vocals and by sidekick Jordan Hunt on violin, was written by her hero Henry Purcell in 1685. A few of the songs are not sung in English, including one that features lyrics in 14th-century French.

If this all sounds rather inaccessible to casual fans of folk music or pop balladry, in reality it doesn’t feel that way at all. The ‘early music’ songs, which for Chaney means anything before Mozart, are the exception rather than the rule, and, regardless, the sound and combination of the vocal and instrumental melodies are captivating.

Chaney is in essence picking her favourite songs of the last six hundred years and singing and playing them for us – on acoustic and electric guitars, piano and Indian harmonium. To say some of the songs are a bit good would be understating things somewhat. ‘The Gardener’ and especially ‘Willie o’ Winsbury’, both songs Chaney recorded with The Decemberists for their Offa Rex collaborative project The Queen of Hearts, leave me lost for words. Nothing I can write could do justice to their beauty! You just have to hear them. If you couldn’t be here tonight, buy the album and you will hear what I mean. Live, in a hall like this, they are even more gorgeous.

There are covers of songs by more contemporary artists in the set as well (Kate Bush, Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell, for example), but it’s to Chaney’s great credit that her self-penned material really doesn’t sound out of place.

Songwriting is a large part of what Chaney does. Take the two closing songs on Shelter, for instance: ‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘House on a Hill’. On the record, the former song segues into the latter with some church bells, and Chaney chooses to place the songs side by side live, too, even retaining the sample of the bells in between. I get the impression that those songs mean a lot to her. As the sound of the bells fades away, Chaney sings: “In this house on a hill, where I’ve come to see what is real, all I find is illusion”. It’s an opening line sung so perfectly paced and invitingly.

Hunt, tonight’s able assistant on violin, piano and synthesiser, should certainly not go without further mention. His plucked violin strings and chorus-duet vocals on the performance of Bush’s ‘Army Dreamers’ are wondrous. But the final word must go to Olivia Chaney herself. Spending an evening in her company has been an absolute pleasure.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.