A few weeks ago I found myself in the unusual setting of St Stephen’s Church, halfway down Exeter’s High Street, for the opening gig of the Song Spaces project. Song Spaces is a series of gigs being organised around Exeter in unconventional locations, and this particular location did not disappoint. St Stephen’s is a light, airy church with fantastic acoustic potential, and the staging was strikingly set up underneath a white cross, in front of a colourful floral display. They used deep pink lighting, cast blue and orange shadows when two men took to the stage. Tobias Ben Jacob, wearing a blazer over jeans, picked up one of the three guitars waiting, and John Elliott of The Little Unsaid sat down to his right, behind a piano. They played through the first few songs without introducing themselves, Tobias on guitar and vocals and John providing piano, synths and backing vocals, as well as using a drum pad. They made an impressive pair, creating the sound of an entire band between just the two of them. 

When he did engage with the audience, Tobias spoke sparingly but still came across as extremely likeable. He thanked everyone for coming, jokingly adding that “it would be bit rubbish if it was just me and John”, and when a man in the audience called out that he was amazing he responded, “Thanks, Dad!” He also took this break to offer some background to his songs, for example, “Hard Luck Kids”, which he explained was written from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old, depicting the madness of being a teenager and believing yourself to be bulletproof.  

It was a varied set, mostly based on Tobias’s 2017 album A Polyphonic Life, with some newer songs. From the soft vulnerability expressed in ‘89’ to the self-assured clarity of “If Any Dream Survives”, this collection really showcased the range of his vocal tone. His gruff, throaty voice and guitar-based sound invite comparisons with the American singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, as does his impressive lyrical ability. At one stage, he and John took to the church’s piano and performed a lovely acoustic version of “Loaded Gun”. The clarity of this acoustic performance highlighted the song’s simple but sweet words, allowing lines like “your smile lifts me from this ordinary world” to really stand out. While the change of scene slightly affected the stability of his vocals, the piano sounded beautiful and proved how exciting this project is, as it allows the acts to incorporate the natural elements of an unconventional space into their performance. 

For his performance of ‘We Are The First Ones Now’, which in its recorded version has backing vocals provided by Wildwood Kin, he brought on Brooke Sharkey to sing the harmonies. This gave us a taste of her husky and interesting voice in advance of her later set. He appropriately finished with the closing song of his album, “Your Sweet Smiling Face”, giving a lovely performance of one of his more uplifting songs.

it allows the acts to incorporate the natural elements of an unconventional space into their performance

There was a brief intermission with tea and eat biscuits at the back of the church before Brooke Sharkey’s set began. Brooke is a close friend of Tobias, whom he told us he specifically wanted to play the first gig, an interesting choice as they are stylistically very different artists. Brooke’s slightly shy, endearing stage presence is a contrast to the confidence that Tobias exuded during his performance, and her music is much more experimental. She explained to us before she began that most of the songs she would later play came from a concept album which was inspired by a break-up and followed the journey of recovery from heartbreak to the point where you can fall in love again. Her first song, “New Star” set the tone for her performance, with her piercing voice, reminiscent of Kate Bush, finding its way smoothly around the song’s minor key and discordant guitar accompaniment. 

She performed the majority of the songs on her own on her guitar, with a drum machine, loop pedal and some recorded audio creating the sonic background. The echoes and ethereal harmonies she revealed through these machines created a haunting edge to her music which one wouldn’t expect from a first glance at Brooke, with her soft voice and casual clothing. She contextualised her songs very well, from telling us about her writing process for one that she composed while staying at Shakespeare & Co in Paris, to bringing in a personal element by explaining that her song “Ugly” is about her turbulent relationship with makeup.

For one song, entitled “Come and Go”, she enlisted the help of the audience to provide backing vocals during the chorus, creating a familiar communal atmosphere that felt very appropriate in a church. She sang the verses in French, a lovely touch that hearkened back to her French roots. Following this, she performed a captivating cover of Tom Waits’ “The Briar and the Rose” using just her guitar and a drum machine, and for her final song, “Let’s Merge”, she brought Tobias and John back on to the stage. Very impressively, they completely improvised their accompaniment for this song, and once again the audience joined in on the chorus, ending the gig on a sweet note.

The event was put on in conjunction with Poltimore Festival, a music and arts festival outside of Exeter which takes place on May 27th, and has seen performances from Brooke Sharkey and Tobias Ben Jacob in previous years. Song Spaces have a lot more exciting locations lined up, so make sure to keep an eye out for future gigs! 

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