Josh T Pearson
It needed the warmest spring of the decade to make the temperature inside the Union Chapel comfortable. This full working church in Islington at nights transforms into its Mr Hyde becoming one of the best live music venues in London.
Assuming you bring scarf, gloves a jumper and a warm hat to bear the cold and soft cushions to avoid that the wooden benches make you pay for all your sins at once. You can also warm up sipping hot tea and coffee. The House of Lord allows Devil’s music inside but not alcohol, not yet.
This spring mild atmosphere is tonight warmed up by Josh T Pearson playing his biggest gig to date.
After several years in a limbo, the rise of the ‘Texan preacher’ following his solo debut, The Last of the Country Gentlemen, has been unstoppable. From very small venues through Southbank prestigious halls he is about to playing in the beautiful setting of the Union Chapel.
Praised by every single music magazine in the world, the album projected Pearson in the Empyrean, sitting among the intimist and emotional figures of modern music, with the comparisons flying high, from Jeff Buckley to Bon Iver.
His solo debut album has been waited for years. For someone, not many to be fair, since the break up of Lift To Experience, the band Pearson formed and split after the first album: The Texas Jerusalem Crossroad.
A beautiful piece of music recorded on two CDs, despite the audacious concept which, from a non Texan perspective, looks on the verge of ridicule. Even watched from the most reactionary of the States of America, composed and recorded in the most reactionary phase of pre 9/11 Bush’s era, it is weird. In brief, as the leaflet explains, it is based on the evidence that at the centre of the word JerUSAlem there is, fact, the word USA.
Hence USA must be a Biblical destined place that crosses roads with the most biblical of all: Jerusalem. I wasn’t patient enough to try to understand why, among the other states, Texas is the destined.
Now, if one’s manages to go beyond American psychosis, religious radicalism and ignores rational skepticism, this is a beautiful record.
Over a dilute and fluid guitar which gets close to shoegaze in several moments, classic American elements appear and disappear as those dusty desert sand clouds. Sermons, blues, curse, God, handguns all are waved in the name of the promised land, Texas of course.
I ignore the details of the personal growth of Josh T Pearson in the ten years following the end of Lift to Experience (they briefly reformed in 2009) till today.
Pearson‘s eccentric character belongs to those men who base part of their fascination on the aura of mystery surrounding them.
Few evidences. I read that he spent much time in Europe: Paris, Berlin (where he recorded the album in few days) and London.
I see he hasn’t shaved for a while.
I perceive he had more than one tricky sentimental situation.
This has shaped his emotional state which sublimated into that merciless, dramatic, intimate confession that The Last of The Country Gentlemen is.
Music-wise these years passed through many concerts, appearances and collaborations. Worth nothing is the meeting (and the singing) in a couple of songs for Bat For Lashes; his move from Bella Union to Mute that put him in touch with another important bearded musician: Warren Ellis of the glorious Dirty Three, Bad Seeds and Grinderman to name but few. Warren Ellis mad violin appears with some cameos in Josh T album.
My first encounter with Pearson live, dates back to 2007 when he was among the support slots for a concert by the Aussie band The Devastations at the Monto Water Rats, a Kings Cross pub in London. (Some of those pictures are at the end of this section). Tonight was the first proper solo show, the first since the album and “success”.
Success that gathered any Londoner with a beard longer than an inch inside the Union Chapel.
The microphone is centre of the altar, a piano and a string trio on the back; red and blue spots highlight the gothic architecture.
An ambience of great expectations builds up under the unusual large space that sits the 800 people. I learnt that the architect James Cubitt about 150 years ago designed this church with in mind the idea of creating a place that didn’t have the classic nave and aisle crossed plan of a church with columns hindering the view. I doubt he worked with live music in mind, but it works great for it.
Dustin O’Halloran, a awarded soundtracks’ musician opens the show entertaining the crowd with a minimalist piano set which walks in equilibrium on the line separating Keith Jarret and New Age. Thankfully he doesn’t fall in either of those cliché.
Josh T, whose ego seems to grow as fast as his success, instead is occupied posing for a photo shoot with Steve Gullick, another of the friends orbiting around Nick Cave, Ellis, Mute records.
When Pearson arrives on stage his skinny, tall hairy figure resembles that of a man who is the meeting point between a bastard cow-boy and the pastor who tries to redeem him in a chapel among Texas’ cactus.
Boots, dark jeans and an elegant jacket that he keeps for two seconds before throwing it backstage to stay with the (same old?) white T-shirt I always saw him.
He thanks the audience to have filled up the place, jokes about the place status and uses the first song to remember everyone this is not a mass. Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ makes it clear who’s on the altar tonight.
His acoustic guitar in the church’s acoustic, gives him a more rounded, lower sound. His voice impresses for the capability to affect emotions that act as scratches on people’s ears. A lament from (what sounds like) a miserable soul who put into music the tough times to emancipate from the pain. Every facet, from victimization to sense of guilt, from brutal aggression to hints of misogyny are uttered in front of 800 people as he was howling from his front porch.
The intense moments that in The Last of The Country Gentlemen Josh T Pearson seems to control making the listening almost an harrowing experience, tonight lacks of continuity to his own fault.
When the strings trio joins him for Woman, When I have Raised Hell, one of the most spectacular songs of 2011, the sensation is that the piece remains trapped inside the instruments. The stateliness of the church becomes a prison.
The nervous strumming and stomping I remembered of Josh T live show, tonight is missing. He doesn’t seem audacious, those breaks in the rhythm which are the unexpected event arriving to shatter the monotony of his long songs don’t arrive. The songs at times seem endless and, naturally, tedious.
To make bad worse, instead of breaking the weak moments with injection of his audacious inserctions, Pearson opts to entertain the audience in the intervals between songs telling dull jokes and funny (?) stories.
His internal saboteur is working full speed tonight to try to disrupt his biggest show anytime the music works to build it.
Dustin O’Halloran joins him on stage for Country Dumb. The piano and the violins complete the absence of courage that lacks to his guitar. The song emerges, expand, takes form and will mark the peak of the night.
As soon as the band leaves Josh T embarks in another sequence of bad jokes that generates nothing more than some giggles. Nobody but him, clearly, is enjoying this bit.
He explains that the reason of the jokes is to allow (him? The audience?) to tolerate listening to tormenting songs. The result is quite the opposite.
This continuous breaking the flow of desperation that many came to experience questions the honesty present on the record.
It discloses insecurity. The fear to be too heavy confuses and I am perplexed by this light-hearted mood that doesn’t make ends meet.
I am glad Josh T Pearson is finally happy and smiley but I leave the Union Chapel with the annoying sensation of having missed an occasion.
Shooting an unknown musician opening for a main act is a question any concert photographer meets when approved for a concert.
I often go as early as I can to a show, but I see many photographers arriving just the 2 minutes before the main act starts (and going home after the third song). Choices.
Shooting supports on film was a bigger issue. Because of the costs, because of the films you needed, because of the time to change the rolls and the time to process them once at home.
Doing that on digital isn’t a big hassle, few megabytes of space are cheap, download files on your machine is quick, and bad images can be deleted.
There is no cons to photograph supports.
There are pros too, they are a great opportunity to learn, to study the stage best angles before the main act, to experiment new ideas, or try some tricks you don’t want to waste on the band you are longing for.
Often the support isn’t limiting you to 3 songs, sometimes they don’t mind if you use flash.
It also happen quite often that who is pretty unknown today can be very famous in the future and you may have in your archive some precious ‘early shots’ of someone.
Many famous photographers became famous this way. Herb Ritts and his Richard Gere‘s portraits. Anton Corbijn meeting Joy Division. Robert Mapplethorpe sharing a flat with Patti Smith.
I don’t think I will become famous for these Josh T Pearson photographs, but I am happy they have finally found a reason to exist.
It was nice to go back searching among the negative files, removing the strips from the acetates and also finding they have been sitting with an interesting guest for some time.
An involuntary ‘digital Rayography’.