Patrick Wolf

Mark Savage 21/11/2007

Tonight Patrick Wolf brings piano, guitar, ukulele, violin, keyboard, electric organ and the pipe organ of St George's church, but no band. A lesser talent might strum and pluck through some sedate acoustic versions of the songs that shaped such a successful year, but there is no resting on laurels here. Avoiding tired notions of stripped down solo shows, this is a full-on live investigation, in which Wolf exhumes the ghosts of the venue and of his own real and invented picaresque pasts.

He enters from the back of the hall, a Victorian schoolboy at harvest festival, singing Frère Jacques and plucking at his violin. His lankiness is poignant, contrasting with his boyish clothes and sense of wonder; more so, on a night when Wolf attempts to ascertain his relationship with his output. The stage is a toyshop, with Wolf as the dress-up boy king of lore, a Billy Liar in a permanent dream world, an explorer in an Angela Carter-esque heaven, where boys ride circus elephants; and it's more than an aesthetic. Tonight there is evidence of a questing spirit within the songs themselves.

Wolf consistently sings of places, and of going, and of home. His albums are rooted to, and affected by, place. So it figures that every revisiting of them in every new venue should be wildly different. In this place of worship, there is wind in the wires, the voodoo in the ether; tunings are sweated out of position, into new off-colour ones; Patrick apologises for the ukulele's jarring tone, before realising it might be his own larynx that is hitting different notes. That voice, like Marc Almond or Nick Cave, is not a natural one; it is the voice, like theirs, of romantic craftsmen, auteurs who've invented themselves as the star, the crooner; they all, to an extent, are concerned with the process, the song, its magic, its drama.

There are more mistakes than I can ever remember at a gig. But then only the truly talented can truly make mistakes. Wolf is open to them - each mis-hit chord leads to a new way of playing, another version of the song. He embraces these errors, uses them, and already some of his numbers sound like revamped traditionals lifted from some collective folk lore.

In “Get Lost” he needs help remembering the first line, a naked example of what happens to a successful record when it gets away from its creator - where it goes, and how to get back to it, is explored all evening. We see Wolf unlearning songs, unpicking their structures, stripping them of the pain and fun gathered along the way, boiling the juices up to see what is actually there. “Augustine” stutters and burps from a cracked ukulele. We have wandering segues, a snatch of “Moon River”, and lengthy endings when Wolf toys with the carcass of a song, sabotaging his own applause. “London” begins with a keyboard loop, the church organ and Wolf's voice, before he dances over to introduce piano and electric organ. This scattergun approach is a joy, something name performers rarely open themselves to. Song forms hum like ley lines Wolf wants to follow but also escape from, the music here the product of the conflicting orbits of his wills. He is fighting the magnetism of the known trajectories of his records. Just because you have found one magic position, doesn't mean you should stop looking for another.
Of course, genius should be run hard, tortured, exposed to the elements. It should never simply be displayed: that renders it dormant and dry. Rather than bathing in the glory of a loving audience, tonight Wolf is chipping away at its meaning, planing down songs where they were large, expanding and adding appendages where they were small; he jerks every few bars, throwing the clapping crowd out of time and off the trail, into a new undergrowth, ever closer to tipping the tunes into a wonderfully weird tunelessness.

A joyous, ragged, make-it-up-as-we-go “Magic Position”, accompanied by support act Lightspeed Champion, brings the chapel tumbling, the congregation mis-timing the foot-stamps and hand-claps of the chorus, causing Wolf to collapse into giggles. Errors are fun.