In every respect bar its austere pews, the Union Chapel is one of the best venues in London: beautiful and atmospheric, it encourages concert-goers to listen rather than chat. There’s no bringing in booze from the bar, so you’re not disturbed by people going hither and thither (though the couple next to me had smuggled in a thermos of tea and a pack of Choco Leibniz).
It suited the Delines, from Oregon, down to the ground. Though they released their first album only five years ago, the Delines are hardly a young band. They’re middle-aged and their songs are middle-aged: sad and weary laments for lives that have slipped out of focus. Their songwriter (and guitarist) Willy Vlautin is also
a decent novelist, and he brings a novelist’s precision to his writing, using plain language to tell devastating short stories, like that of the woman in ‘The Oil Rigs at Night’, who is going to leave her marriage while her husband’s out on the rigs, or the wife in the opposite situation in ‘He Don’t Burn For Me’, wondering why she is no longer desirable: ‘He used to call me at work/ Just to say “Hi”/ He would tell me he couldn’t sleep/ Unless he was by my side.’ The writing looks plain on the page, but when delivered by Amy Boone, who has a voice so soft and controlled it could be used to quell riots, these songs went somewhere beyond heartbreaking.
Behind Boone, the rest of the band — lit in reds and blues so muted you could sometimes scarcely see them — played their stately country-soul without flash, colouring between Boone’s verses with the saddest of all the instruments: pedal steel, Fender Rhodes and muted trumpet. It was like taking a long, warm bath in other people’s misery.
There was no misery the following night at Wembley Arena — an atmosphereless barn, but at least it doesn’t have pews — for Christina Aguilera, playing her first UK shows in more than a decade. The talking point, according to the Daily Mail and the Sun, was that she ‘displays her curves in a bondage-inspired bodysuit’. It’s usually best not to dwell on a singer’s costumes, but Aguilera’s were, by any standard, unusual. One appeared to be fetish postal worker from Ruritania; another was abbess from Italian video found on the outer reaches of the internet. But the ‘displaying her curves’ bit, I think, is wrong. Her audience was almost entirely women and gay men, and she was projecting not raunch but a kind of we-can-all-be-whatever-we-want unselfconsciousness. ‘Thank you for allowing me to hear your stories and be part of your journey,’ she told her followers, and while I bet she doesn’t actually want all and sundry cornering her with tales of their bloody awful boyfriend, she is clearly offering ‘relatability’, much like Ariana Grande, a US Latinx star of more recent vintage.
‘Beautiful’, the booming self-help ballad performed late in the set, was the keystone song. ‘Now and then I get insecure/ From all the pain/ I’m so ashamed,’ Aguilera sang. It didn’t really matter whether or not Aguilera empathised with the lyric, because the audience did, and the pop that really connects speaks for its audience, not at it.
Unlike so many big arena pop performers, she was clearly singing every note — you could hear her catching her breath at times — and she’s got range and power. Perhaps approaching 40 has made it a teeny bit less supple. On her breakthrough hit, ‘Genie in a Bottle’, from 20 years ago, the breathiness and restraint seemed hard for her to manage. But given how many of her peers barely sing at all in live shows, it seems churlish to fault her for that.
Was the music any good? It was rather less to my taste than the Delines were, but that’s not really the point. An arena show is more an experience than a concert, and Aguilera offered an experience (her current tour is an adaptation of a Vegas residency). But if I had to choose, I’d go for a pew and the Delines, even with the sore bum at the end of it.