Into the Pit: 170: Chelsea Wolfe – Live at Cargo – 09-May 2013

Since last year, and her debut UK show that I also covered here, Chelsea Wolfe has, on the evidence of this show and the apparently well-received tour across the country, significantly increased her fanbase in the UK. So, after a much smaller gig at The Old Blue Last in Shoreditch last May, this time it was around the corner to the larger Cargo for her second London show.

Chelsea Wolfe

The Wytches

Cargo, EC2A
09-May 2013

Also like last time, there was a startlingly young-looking support act prior to her taking the stage. This time it was Brighton-based three-piece The Wytches, who seemed to cross the sounds of Nirvana and The Cramps into a set that was, well, ok. The problem is, I've heard it all before. Yeah, so they were impressively technical, and clearly knew their stuff, but really it was a backwards look and homage to another time, with nothing to suggest that they could take it forward and make a distinct sound of their own.

A distinct sound is something that Chelsea Wolfe already has in spades. Her sound, while like The Wytches draws on the past, has been twisted into shapes now that really don't sound like anyone else. Even in the year since the first London show, things have moved on further. In particular, because an EP released late last year was an entirely acoustic release.

Which turned out to show a whole new facet to her sound, stripping away the effects to reveal a delicate, expansive sound that the gloom has previously obscured, to a point. And so it was no great surprise here to see the set split into two, firstly an acoustic set (although with electronic accompaniment), followed then by an electric set.

All of the acoustic songs were from the said EP, and all sounded very good indeed – particularly the gorgeous, wistful Appalachia which opened the set (and has long been my favourite track from the release). By the end of the short-ish first set, which closed with me having had a whole new light shone on Boyfriend, the violinist remained on stage, providing a thematic link as the remaining personnel on stage changed over, before Chelsea returned with a full band, which appeared to be otherwise the same as last year.

Chelsea Wolfe setlist

Acoustic set:
Spinning Centers
I Died With You
Our Work Was Good

Full band set:
Tracks (Tall Bodies)
Movie Screen
Feral Love
Pale on Pale
Echo [Rudimentary Peni cover]

As part of this second set, a couple of new songs – at least one of which was in her live set last time – were aired, too. Kings opened the "plugged" set, if you will, and is an elegant, stately track that perhaps tones down previous histrionics that dominated the (admittedly brilliant) album ἀποκάλυψις, but still builds to a drum-heavy, hard-hitting close. But the more impressive for me was the almost unbearable intensity of Feral Love, a track built around an electronic pulse and synth washes, with Chelsea's vocals switching from a low moan to ghostly wails.

The bulk of the second set, though, was based around songs from the her breakthrough album ἀποκάλυψις, and they were perhaps more extraordinary than last time. The stark, punky thrust of Demons, elicited cheers, but this was only an early taster of how amazing things were going to get. The addition of electronic beats – effectively meaning there was the effect of two drummers – turned Moses, already a gut-wrenching cry from the depths, into a behemoth that I could see Swans and Jarboe performing.

One oddity remains the fragile beatuty of Movie Screen, the only time for me when Wolfe sounds like someone else. The song is gorgeous, but something of Beth Gibbons from Portishead haunts the song, but that makes it no less arresting live – but like last time, everything in the set was eclipsed by an utterly astonishing, drawn-out take on Pale on Pale. Seemingly long-recognised as Chelsea Wolfe's finest song (in reviews and by the crowd on both occasions now), it was so good that it couldn't possibly be anywhere but at the end of the set.

Which made the return for an encore perhaps all the more surprising. But it wasn't for one of her songs, instead a Rudimentary Peni cover that featured on a release I admittedly missed last year. Not a cover source I'm familiar with, but I suspect that her version of the track will be rather different to the original – the cover was ghostly and intense.

Chelsea Wolfe remains, even in a crowded field of female singer-songwriters, something of an oddity. But that oddity stems from the very different way she sounds in every aspect. A soaring, powerful voice that is used as much as another instrument as it is to enunciate words, a pitch-dark atmosphere that draws on various extreme genres, as well as a more basic grounding in American folk music. But crucially, these elements come together to form extraordinary songs, that grab your attention and draw you further in, enchanted by the mystery and darkness at their heart. Where this journey into darkness takes us next is going to be fascinating and brilliant, I'm sure.

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