November 5, 2021

At one particular time in proceedings they both perform a song on the Korg synth at the same time, their arms crossing each other like some bizarre musical game of Twister.

Out of all of the music venues throughout the world, there are a few which resonate with a particularly iconic status, big or small. Madison Square Garden, Detroit Cobo Hall, The Budokan, Hammersmith Odeon, Glasgow Apollo, The Marquee… never, however, have the words ‘Wigan Baptist Church’ been spoken of in that illustrious company, it is safe to say. Even among some of the fascinatingly unusual small venues scattered around the UK circuit, this one must rank as one of the quirkiest. Firstly, of course, it’s an actual church. Not a former church, but a currently active one. The audience not only sit in the pews, but they also sit next to the bibles and hymn books left for the parishioners – there is coffee, tea and biscuits served in the intermission, and the invitation to bring your own refreshments, but a polite request for ‘no alcohol please’. It’s rock and roll Jim, but not as we know it. And yet, for this particular show it somehow seems like the perfect surroundings.

The Blackheart Orchestra – the multi-instrumental duo made up of Chrissy Mostyn and Rick Pilkington – have come to the attention of a number of people over the past few years by virtue of having the support slot on two consecutive Hawkwind UK tours, on which they went down pretty well with a largely unfamiliar audience. And make no mistake about it, those shows were very well done. However, it is only when seeing them perform in a tiny, old, yet beautifully appointed venue as this that the true effect of their performance comes across. The Blackheart Orchestra can fill a big venue with their performances, they have proved that. But in a small environment, especially one in which the audience are unavoidably conditioned to be quiet and refrain from talking even if they wanted to, the subtlety of their instrumental interplay can be experienced to its full potential. The special atmosphere generated by the decor of this tiny chapel is also something which you simply couldn’t recreate in a regular pub or club.

Photo: Chris Walkden

For two people, who do not use any backing tapes, the array of instruments set up before the show starts is a clue for the uninitiated about the breadth of their talents, and the unusual nature of their repertoire. Along with several sets of keyboards, there are multiple guitars (both acoustic and electric), bass, electronic percussion, microphones and even a violin bow. There is also a solitary hi-hat waiting rather forlornly in front of a Korg synth. It’s essentially a full band’s instrumental line-up, yet all waiting to be played by two astonishingly versatile multi-instrumentalists. When one plays keyboards, the other might play guitar. Or there might be guitar and bass. Or even keyboards and bass. Occasionally these roles are even doubled up – at one point Chrissy manages to intersperse a percussion accompaniment on an electronic pad while she is playing the keyboard part, and even more bizarrely Rick performs one song by playing keyboards and bass at the same time, both one-handed. At one particular time in proceedings they both perform a song on the Korg synth at the same time, their arms crossing each other like some bizarre musical game of Twister. It’s all fascinating stuff to watch – and one of the key reasons why this sort of close-up experience is the duo’s natural habitat – and yet it would be nothing more than a ten-minute novelty if the songs weren’t there to back it up.

And they are. This much is clear, of course, by the fact that their albums have been successful in themselves and highly praised in critical circles. If your only gimmick is being a one man band with cymbals on your knees and a bass drum on your back, you might do well busking but you’re going to fall flat on your face in audio only. This is where The Blackheart Orchestra score highly – their albums could be enjoyed just as much by someone completely unaware that they are two people who can perform and reproduce everything in real time. The musicianship is good, the songwriting is excellent, and in Chrissy’s superb and distinctive voice they have the cherry on top of the cake.

The show tonight is in two halves, with an interval allowing the rather civilised tea and biscuits to be served in the church hall. It’s a long way from fighting at the bar to hand over your first-born child for a bottle of scandalously overpriced Newcastle Brown, or lager in a plastic glass, and then finding you have five minutes before the band are back on, that much is certain! The first half draws heavily on the most recent album of new material, Mesmeranto. It’s a very strong album, and can handle it, and tracks such as Wolves and Ennikur are notable highlights. There is also an excellent new song called A Dangerous Thing from the just-recorded forthcoming album, described as ‘sounding like being murdered in your sleep’ – which might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but actually describes this tense, claustrophobic piece to a T! Following one final Mesmeranto selection, Another Lifetime (described by Rick as his favourite, whereas Chrissy faces a continual Sophie’s Choice-type dilemma choosing hers), the interval arrives to enable that decidedly un-rock-and-roll activity of pottering into the hall for some nice coffee and biscuits, before a second half which immediately brings us some more selections from the upcoming album, which on this evidence sounds very interesting indeed.

Photo: Chris Walkden

A couple of favourites are included in this set, with Hypnotize from the Diving For Roses album a well received inclusion, but perhaps the highlight is saved for the set-closer, Not Over Yet. Taken from the Songs From A Satellite album, the last one released under the previous, shorter name of ‘Blackheart’, the track is extended significantly from its original form and given a rousing electric guitar-led finale. Rick gets to indulge his inner guitar hero (and you can tell he’s loving it!), while Chrissy juggles keyboards, percussion and vocals in a fine display of plate-spinning. It’s a song, and an arrangement, which displays everything great about what The Blackheart Orchestra represent: it’s exciting and dramatic, yet it also contains a web of subtle textures delivered in such a confident way that it seems far easier than it actually is. The track gets a great ovation as the duo go through the absurd pantomime of pretending to have finished before coming back for an ‘encore’ – they even acknowledge this as they depart with more than a hint that, don’t worry, we’ll be back in a minute. On this inevitable return, we are informed that this is necessary just in case the audience all decide to get up and leave simultaneously – unlikely, but well, we’ve all heard of gigs like that! The final piece is another trip back to Satellite for the off-kilter and unique world-music feel of Hey Pluto, its oddly cosmic title at odds with its rather more earthbound musical roots. It’s an exhilarating way to end the show, and it is clear that the audience are all going home more than happy.

Whether they return to this venue again is open to debate – the appearance here was more by fortunate accident than design, as previous dates at other locations were frustratingly cancelled under the bizarre regime we have found ourselves in of late, but both artists and audience seem to have been overwhelmingly enamoured by the rather lovely surroundings and the magic in the air – so who knows whether the future may see another evening service here for the Blackhearted Faithful? I for one would happily be in the congregation. All in all, an entrancing evening. Amen!