By Maura Sutton
Union Chapel has always been a pretty magical venue, but at Christmastime it’s even more magical than usual, especially with the addition of a magnificent Christmas tree.
No surprise, then, that this was the venue chosen by Sarah Darling to host her “very special Christmas concert,” the labour of love that she’s been planning and dreaming about for several years, and which finally came to fruition in December 2019.
I first saw Sarah Darling during her debut UK tour back in September 2016, when she played an acoustic “in-the-round” set, sharing the stage with two other Nashville singer-songwriters, Jenn Bostic and Kyshona Armstrong. The venue on that occasion was the Winemakers Club in Farringdon, a tiny, but atmospheric wine cellar venue tucked away underneath the railway arches. This was just a few months after she had played her first ever UK show at C2C on the BBC Radio 2 stage.
Sarah certainly showed a lot of promise during that acoustic set, and thanks to frequent trips back to these shores for live shows, as well as the subsequent release of her Dream Country album in early 2017, her late-2017 Christmas album, Winter Wonderland, and 2019’s UK-Country-Chart-topping Wonderland album, she’s become a very popular performer with UK country fans, hence finally being able to fulfil her dream of putting on this “crazy” Christmas show at Union Chapel.
The first thing that struck me as Sarah Darling took to the stage at Union Chapel, backed by a four-piece band, was just how much her stagecraft has developed since that tiny acoustic gig in Farringdon three years earlier, so much so that she even reminded me a little of Taylor Swift in the way in which she danced around the stage when not playing her acoustic guitar, not to mention her trademark lilting, ethereal vocals, and the light and fun way in which she interacted with the audience. And it also seems that Dream Country is still a very apt description of her style of country music (dreams have always been a very big theme in her music), which sounded particularly dreamy, vibey, and hypnotic within such a magical setting.
The evening was divided into two distinct halves, with the first being devoted more to Sarah’s own songs from her most recent two (non-Christmas) albums, including Where Cowboys Ride, Fire, and Shine, as well as two songs that reflect her self-confessed obsession with the British weather, Blue Sky (in which she joked about being responsible for bringing the sunshine back to the UK this year), and Talk About the Weather. The second half also featured some of her own music, but the majority of this portion of the set was devoted to guest appearances, collaborations, covers, and Christmas songs.
The first special guest was none other than singer-songwriter Jamie Lawson, and Sarah introduced him by talking about how much fun they had on the road when they toured together earlier in 2019. He performed a couple of songs, most notably a spellbindingly raw version of Hallelujah, his anguished vocals echoing up to the rafters, a stark contrast to the generally festive and holly-jolly feel of the rest of the evening’s fare.
The next special guests to appear were The Wandering Hearts, and you could hear the gasps of surprise from the audience at one of UK country music’s brightest hopes turning up unannounced to appear with their friend.
The band performed a couple of really enjoyable numbers, with AJ revealing that they actually wrote their song Burning Bridges with the thought of performing it at Union Chapel in their minds. Sarah then joined them onstage for a really sweet, harmony-laden rendition of The Christmas Song.
After The Wandering Hearts had left the stage Sarah performed three brand new songs, namely Over, Waves, and Drive Away With You. The former, in particular, which she said was written in California, had more of a rock sound, with a great lead guitar solo. Waves, written with Rebecca Powell, about “the one that got away,” is different again, very moody and atmospheric. The third new track, Drive Away With You, also sounded like another possible future single. Looking forward to hearing all three of these new songs on the next album, whenever that comes along.
After the three new tracks Sarah launched enthusiastically into a cover of The Wreckers’ Leave the Pieces, which she said she had just covered as part of her ongoing Campfire Sessions project, because she said it reminded her of playing backyard barbecues for her friends back in her hometown. Joined on stage by a fiddle player, it sounded faithfully close to the original.
Then it was time for the final mystery guests of the evening, who just happened to be Ward Thomas! Once again you could hear the gasps of surprise and excitement from the audience as Catherine and Lizzy appeared onstage to sing several songs, including Divide, Sarah’s brand-new single that they’re featured on. Songwriter Jessica Sharman also joined the newly minted trio onstage for this one. Another highlight was Ward Thomas and Sarah teaming up for a haunting cover of the Fleetwood Mac/Dixie Chicks classic, Landslide.
Finally the show drew to a close with Sarah interspersing more of her own songs such as Montmartre, Halley’s Comet, and London Fog, with several of her favourite Christmas songs, including Winter Wonderland, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, and Silent Night, the latter being a beautiful acapella rendition.
To sum up, it’s great to see an artist that has fulfilled, nay exceeded, their early potential, and tonight’s stellar show indicated exactly that.
Overall this was an extremely enjoyable special Christmas experience, not just because of the great music and special guest appearances from some of Brit country’s finest, but also simply because it felt like a fantastic way to ease into the Christmas spirit in a peaceful, tranquil space that felt far removed from the hustle and bustle on the streets outside.
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