Widowspeak at Studio 9294, Hackney Wick, 15 November 2022

The gigs keep coming this November! After the Pitchfork Music Festival, I had Monday off before venturing out east to see Widowspeak at Studio 9294, a new venue for me. I’ve been to Hackney Central enough times, to see bands at Oslo and the Moth Club, but Hackney Wick was new territory. It’s just on the other side of the River Lea Navigation channel from the Olympic Park, and efforts have clearly been made to create a new centre for arts, restaurants and bars. Hackney Wick station on the Overground is bang in the middle, so it’s easy to get to, though we did need to work around some “severe delays” on the night.

Jon and I met in one of the craft beer bars that now populate the area, in what used to be an industrial yard, by the looks of things at night. I need to explore it during the day! The bar was called Howling Hops, and I really liked it. All in the modern vogue of bare brick walls and long tables; and with a line of metal tanks of beer behind the bar. Don’t be deceived by the House IPA, which usually means a good session beer. It’s excellent, but it packs a powerful punch, at 6.9%. I dropped down to the Tropical Deluxe IPA at 3.8% for my second pint, a refreshing little number.

Beer sampling over, we made our way to Studio 9294. We got there at 8.45 – plenty of time for a 9-9.30 start, we assumed. Wrong! Security – one person – was asking everyone to empty their pockets (under instruction I’m sure) and a queue had formed. The inspections became a bit more perfunctory as time passed and we found our way in just after nine. The place was heaving and the concert had just started. There was no prospect of getting a beer, though after that first one at Howling Hops that was no great loss. We managed to find a reasonable view at the back and focused on the music.

Widowspeak are from Brooklyn, New York, and have been around since 2010. The core duo for most of that time has been Molly Hamilton (vocals and rhythm guitar) and Robert Earl Thomas (lead guitar). Including The Jacket from this year, they have made six albums; but I only came across them when they released an EP last year called Honeychurch. It featured a track called Money (Hymn) which I absolutely loved. It took me back to the sound of Mazzy Star, with Molly’s vocals dreamy like Hope Sandoval’s and the guitar sound very much in the Mazzy Star vein too. I played that song a lot – Spotify Wrapped told me it was my seventh most streamed song in 2021. But I liked the rest of the EP too, especially two covers: Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet, which Molly’s voice turned into a languid haze; and REM’s The One I Love, which was more of a straight rendition.

I didn’t summon the energy to go through the whole back catalogue at that point, though I did listen to 2020’s Plum a couple of times. A faster version of Money, with a country twang, was on the album, but it didn’t really register – I guess I just preferred the hymnal take and forgot about the original. But they were a band that definitely interested me and I was keen to catch a live show, if they toured the UK. And it came to pass that they did in 2022, as well as releasing an excellent album, The Jacket. The song that jumped out at me – or maybe sidled out, given the Widowspeak vibe – was The Drive. It ambles along in mid-tempo, as Molly’s voice once again drifts wistfully over the melody. It’s not about cars or travel, though there is a mention of the open road. It’s about not moving on, not having the drive even if you think you should be doing more. It’s an admonition, but a gentle one. And musically it changes gear about two-thirds of the way through. It starts to rock! And my reaction was, this is going to be great live.

And yes, it was. To my relief, it wasn’t the song half way in when we made it into the venue. That was The Jacket, another highlight of the album of the same name. The band – five of them – were crammed onto the small stage, but one could sense a real togetherness and enjoyment about them. Given the Mazzy Star – and hence Velvet Underground – feel about their sound, they were surprisingly effusive in between songs. A band comfortable in themselves. The concert had a slow burn to it, just like most of their recorded music. It feels good, and then it feels better, as the melodies, the subtle twists reveal themselves. And Robert’s guitar was a revelation. There were moments of jazziness, and yes, that Mark Knopfler sound; but then he’d let rip, ramp up the distortion. By the end I felt I’d witnessed a masterclass.

Tracks from the new album naturally featured strongly, and that was good for me, as that is the only one I really know! There were no REM or Dire Straits covers, but the spirit of both bands was there in the music. It’s made me think again about Dire Straits. I liked their early music, notably Sultans of Swing. But when they became yuppie coffee table favourites in the 1980s – Money for Nothing, anyone? – I went right off them. I reluctantly went to a Dire Straits concert at Wembley Arena at some point in the 80s with friends, and it was one of the most boring – dire, indeed – that I ever attended. But having said that, I always liked Romeo and Juliet, which has the feel of an early Springsteen epic. Perhaps it’s time for a full reappraisal, courtesy of Widowspeak.

So, I started by appreciating this concert, and ended up loving it, not least because the last track of the main set was Money, the speeded up version. I really liked the way they treated the song, which I thought was a new development, having forgotten that it started that way. It rocked more than the album version though, with Robert’s guitar in full flight.

An evening of discoveries. A new venue, a new area to explore for beer and food and interesting interiors, and a band that revealed a whole new dimension to me tonight. Look out for The Jacket by Widowspeak high in my albums of the year, coming to you soon!

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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2 Responses to Widowspeak at Studio 9294, Hackney Wick, 15 November 2022

  1. Dood says:

    Always wondered quite where Hackney Wick was! So it’s right between Victoria Park and the Olympic Park, as you say. I guess we skirted it on our River Lea walk, when paying respects to the London Stadium.

    Impressive band, Widowspeak, and a compelling review. I’ll definitely check them out.

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