KT Tunstall at Union Chapel

November 16, 2011

KT Tunstall at the Union Chapel, Tuesday 8th November 2011 as watched by Helen Thomson

You might think you know who KT Tunstall is. Rugged Indie Popstrel with a penchant for on-stage sampling and a mean line in catchy, radio-friendly songs. Right?

Wrong. It seems that along the way, KT has been lulling a lot of us into a false sense of security, gathering up fans by keeping them secure with hits such as Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, Suddenly and Other Side of the World. And secure they should be as these are fantastic tracks, brilliantly performed by the solo KT at her rather special two-night stint at the Union Chapel last week. I suspect that most of the audience, like me, thought they knew where the show was going – classic Tunstall; stories of make-ups and break-ups with some feel-good melodies and great beats. And that’s what we got for the first half of the show.

From the moment KT arrived on stage, flicking her long fly-away brown hair and striding around in her gold sequinned jeans, solo KT captivated the Union Chapel and filled it from the pews to the candlelit mezzanine as well as any five-piece band. Using seven guitars, a veritable tour-truck full of audio equipment and some well-timed finger clicks, Tunstall soared through her first six tracks, which included a full-pelt rendition of Black Horse and the Cherry Tree kept fresh by rolling it into a kazoo solo of the anthemic bass-line from the White-Stripes Seven Nation Army and skilfully blending riffs and melodies from both tracks, making live sampling look a cinch.

However, all was not as it seemed and half way through the set, just when we’d all got comfortable, Tunstall proved anyone who’s ever labelled her ‘predictable’ to be utterly wrong. ‘This is my new EP, Scarlett Tulip’ she proudly announced and what came next was totally unexpected.

Recorded in her solar-powered home studio, and only sold from her gigs or website, (‘No barcode!’ She proudly announced), the next three songs took us back to the roots of her guitar playing and song-writing; no sampling trickery, just the purity of her voice and simplicity of finger picked guitar. A little bit Laura Marling, a little bit traditional Celtic, these’Seven songs of finger-pickin’ folkness’ are a giant leap away from Black Horse or Suddenly I See; no longer is Tunstall singing just of her love and life, but a wider world steeped in history and legend.

Scarlett Tulip contains beautiful dark-edged folk. Haunting, pure and, at times. even eerie – a feeling heightened further when hearing songs from the EP performed solo in the hallowed halls of the Union Chapel. Hidden Heart, taken from the EP, is, in Tunstall’s words, about ‘a tree who is pissed off because all his friends are Ikea flat-packed furniture’, whilst Shanty of the Whale, sung totally unaccompanied from the Chapel’s pulpit, is a tragic tale of a whale being hunted, written after Tunstall was deeply affected by seeing sperm whales in New Zealand. It is rare to see a pop performer strip back to the bare bones of their solo voice with no security blanket of instruments or effects and yet Tunstall mesmerised the entire audience with only her voice.

Of course, after years of playing live shows, Tunstall knows how to leave a crowd on a high, and rounded off her show with a couple more feel good hits, including a great rendition of the Stevie Nicks classic, Landslide and a brilliant mouth-trumpet solo during Suddenly I See.

However, for me, the lasting memory of the night will be the discovery that Tunstall is a writer and performer of considerable depth. Not only can she whip up a crowd with a bunch of great indie-pop classics, spin more than a few great one-liners and create the sound of a stage full of talent with little more than her sampler, in her newest work, she’s willing to let her audience see her soul and creativity at its rawest, and that was what made her Union Chapel gigs such a privilege to witness.

KT Tunstall presents Rumble for The Jungle at the Tabernacle, London on 22nd November 2011. Tickets from £27.50, and available from http://www.ents24.com/web/artist/43847/KT_Tunstall.html

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