The Emmanuel Centre is something to behold; built in the 20’s in the heart of Westminster, a large circular room is surrounded by marble columns, vaulted ceiling, glass skylight, row upon row of oak pews and an impressive set of pipe organs. It’s less known as a gig space, tending to be utilised for corporate functions. Perhaps promoters are put off by the giant gilded Biblical inscriptions that trace the circumference of the interior. Whatever the reason, it’s a pity as this makes for a stellar music venue that’s circularity lends itself a communal intimacy, like a genteel middle-class cousin to Camden’s Roundhouse.
Support act Dana Gavanski, a Toronto-based singer/songwriter, eases the crowd into their pews with sultry electric strumming and a gorgeous soprano before Damien Jurado takes to the stage with only acoustic guitar for company. Kitted-out in double denim and red beanie, a Pacific Northwestern Steve Zissou with the deadpan to match (“wow, cool room”) as he begins with heartbreaking farewell ode ‘The Last Great Washington State’ (he had recently moved from Seattle to LA). The front end of the set consists largely of songs from his last two albums, including 2019’s back-to-basics In the Shape of a Storm (his 14th), which sets the tone for the evening. Highlights are the one-two of ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Newspaper Gown’. This is not an indie stalwart nor psychedelic balladeer, this is folk veteran Damien.
After a couple of new songs there is a lengthy crowd interaction where he answers questions about his music (“50% about mental illness, the others about death”), favourite films (60’s B-movie Wild Guitar, feminist cult-classic Wanda) and his own mental health (two years ago he had to leave the stage after four songs at a gig in Antwerp). He is self-deprecating, charismatic, and funny, bantering throughout with the unmistakable dry wit of someone from a rain-drenched city like Seattle. Perhaps that’s why he’s so comfortable in London. Man-and-his-guitar gigs can become seat-shifters for even the most accomplished of artists, so this is welcome and expert respite from a man who’s been on the circuit for over 20 years.
He kicks off the second half of the show with fan favourites ‘Cloudy Shoes’ and ‘Rachel & Cali’, and during ‘Sheets’ the reverence is so complete you can hear the whispers of people singing the lyrics to themselves. His voice has many textures and timbres, a sweet coo will give rise to a Leonard Cohen-esque bellow, the versatility of someone who’s experimented with multiple genres. His guitar-playing is precise yet subdued, allowing his voice, the real instrument here, the freedom to roam and do most of the heavy emotional lifting, of which there is much.
The evening ends with the howling refrain: “just stick around till the light pushes into the darkness!” ebbing from gentle mantra to a barely-there whisper whilst slowly placing his guitar on floor and leaving the stage, to a standing ovation. Earlier, someone asked him how LA was going, to which he replied, “don’t know, I moved again”. Damien Jurado remains a restless soul but it sure was a treat to have him firmly in one place for the night – stark and resolute.