Review by Maura Sutton
On a cold, rainy, and forbidding winter’s night in London, Garrison Starr and Sean McConnell graced the ancient and beautiful St Pancras Old Church with a show so compelling and moving you could feel the true reverence from audience to artists and back again.
It was a night when nothing but sheer musical talent alone, and searingly honest songwriting, was able to hold the standing-room-only crowd enthralled and mesmerised. This was a crowd so attentive to, and considerate of, the performers onstage, that they even shushed each other into silence when Sean was simply tuning up his guitar! That’s not something you hear often.
Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Garrison Starr opened the show, her distinctly beautiful, bright voice recounting moving tales of life growing up as a gay teenager in a deeply religious family in the South. She also had a great line in between-songs banter (despite telling us that her manager wants her to cut back on the chat), so much so that she could have a second career as a stand-up comedian if she wanted. Her recounting how angry (and violent!) she gets if anyone makes fun of her adopted home state of California was particularly amusing!
Aside from Garrion’s own excellent music, including new material from her forthcoming album, which she said she was playing to an audience for the first time, she also covered Tom Petty’s Southern Accents. She also subsequently reappeared during Sean McConnell’s headlining set, but more of that later.
Despite being a relatively new face in terms of live appearances for UK audiences, Sean McConnell has actually been releasing music since 2000, releasing his first self-financed CD, Here in the Lost and Found, when he was just 15 years old. In the interim, he’s also written songs for the likes of many, many big names, including Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, and the Nashville TV series.
More recently, Sean earned his first Number One song credit when he wrote the massive hit Mercy with Brett Young. He’s also the co-writer of three songs on Little Big Town’s magnificent Nightfall album, namely The Daughters, Problem Child (no surprise as both LBT’s Jimi Westbrook and Sean share a similar incredible vocal range), and also the up-tempo witty wordplay of Wine, Beer, Whiskey, with the latter being proof that Sean doesn’t just write sad songs, something that he also joked about during tonight’s set. In the event, we didn’t get any LBT songs from Sean tonight, but he did show us some “Mercy.”
Most of Sean’s music has been released under his own label, but in 2016 he inked a deal with Rounder. His three Rounder releases, 2016’s eponymous offering; Undone, 2017’s all-acoustic version of the 2016 album; and 2019’s Secondhand Smoke are all essential listening for anyone looking for an introduction to Sean’s music.
Sean’s first ever live UK performances were back in November 2016 as part of a “Texas Music Takeover” tour, a result of his involvement with the Texas “red dirt” music scene, specifically Texas artists such as Wade Bowen and The Randy Rogers Band. I was lucky enough to catch the show at the Bedford pub in Balham, and it was immediately obvious then that Sean was something special.
Since then he’s returned to these shores many times, playing to increasingly larger audiences, as more people get to hear about him. In 2019 he supported both Ashley Monroe and Ashley McBryde, as well as appearing at the Long Road festival, where, by all accounts, he went down a storm and garnered many more new fans. The result of all this is a sold-out show tonight.
Tonight’s London show is the final date of Sean’s six-date UK and Ireland tour, representing another significant milestone for him as his first headlining tour outside of the US.
Accompanied by just his own acoustic guitar, an occasional harmonica, and a truly heavenly, pure, powerful voice full of range and emotion, capable of soaring up and beyond the rafters with tear-inducing emotion, sweetness, and clarity, Sean held the hushed audience spellbound for the entire evening.
The beautiful St Pancras Old Church is a particularly fitting venue for Sean McConnell, as a lot of Sean’s songwriting is heavily influenced by his religious upbringing, and he talked about that on stage, saying how much the church reminded him of his days as an altar boy. Hearing Rest My Head, with its opening line about “Judas” and “Jesus” ringing out so clear and strong above the perfectly timed tolling of the church bell, all set against the backdrop of smoky red votive candles casting tall, shimmering shadows on the ancient walls, was one of many standout moments. Queen of St Mary’s Choir and Holy Days were two more particular favourites, as well as one of Sean’s earlier songs, the blues-tinged Save Our Soul, with his trademark soaring vocals that sounded better than ever in this particular venue.
Sean also played his own version of Mercy, the song he wrote with Brett Young, and this really was a treat as he said it’s not something he usually does, although he added that he’s been enjoying playing it more often during his current live run.
With all that songwriting and playing and gigging and raising a family you wouldn’t think that Sean would have time for a side-project, but he does. It’s called My Sister, My Brother, and according to Billboard, it’s a “songwriting supergroup.” Along with Sean and Peter Groenwald (the only one of the three missing tonight), opening artist, Garrison Starr, is the third member of the trio, so it was great to see her return to the stage to play Nothing Without You and Don’t Know How to Love You from that project. The trio have a five-song EP due on March 5.
For Greetings From Niagara Falls, Sean actually unplugged his guitar, saying that he had been waiting since soundcheck to get the chance to do so. Despite the lack of volume, you could hear every word and every note, even without amplification, and it resonated even more strongly because of it.
Sean then left the stage, but the crowd demanded an encore, of course, aided by yet more booming chimes from the church bell (“The Lord wants an encore!”). He returned to the stage, plugged in once more, to sing Holy Days, followed by Everything That’s Good, the song he wrote with, and for, his daughter.
Sean mentioned several times during the set that this was a big moment for him to play to a packed crowd in such a venue (“Thank you for making a dream come true”), and he also said that he wants to keep coming back here for the next 20 or 30 years, which is a promise we should all hold him to!