Gig Review: Agnes Obel at the Barbican

Gig Review: Agnes Obel at the Barbican

So occasionally I take a step away from the thrilling throngs of reporting on entertainment media and pop culture (and I use ‘reporting’ in the loosest possible sense) to go see a gig.

Agnes Obel at The Barbican

{Above: This is Agnes live at Au Grand Rex, Paris}

This weekend I saw a performer I’ve loved and respected for any number of years. Agnes Obel, best known for her appearances on soundtracks for the likes of Grey’s Anatomy and Revenge to most of the world, but known within the European music scene as probably one of the most exciting and respected new artists of the past ten years.

Support Act: Melanie de Biasio

melanie de biasio

I always feel a bit rough for the supporting act, but it’s usually a great opportunity for a band or artist to gain wider exposure. I have found recently though, that supporting acts are wildly misjudged in terms of the audience and lead act.

Belgian import Melanie de Biasio was probably the best fit for Obel at a supporting level she was going to get. She’s talented and lyrically mature enough to warrant her spot on the Barbican stage, and with an enchanting voice from the get go – things seemed positive.

Soon though, it became apparent that performing with a flute and bass guitarist alone was an error for de Biasio. Her enchanting vocals quickly gave way to fatigue of her looped breathing, and without other instrumentation to distract the audience, the similarities of her songs became painfully clear. It’s the kind of music you can imagine playing if you were having a dinner party for swingers. That sort of Nu-Jazz meets sensual songwriter that I’m sure the patrons of The Barbican will appreciate more than I.

De Biasio can be best described as an older man’s Lana Del Ray – a little more lyrically talented, but suffering from the same problem in similarities of delivery and content.

Agnes & Co.


When the lead act arrived on stage, Obel received a huge round of applause from the sold-out concert hall. I, clearly, wasn’t the only fan there.

Her rise to success with a mysterious, enticing brand of alt-pop lies in her ability to entice with a delicate yet haunting voice layered in compliment with strings arrangements filled with melancholy. The lyrics are never too heavy handed and imagery carefully avoids lazy metaphors. Listening to her effectively transports you to the cold and mysterious worlds she conjures up with music  painstakingly crafted from her heart,  then arranged with peers whom understand the benefits of subtlety and restraint.

With a three-piece of cello, violin and piano, Obel and her band produced volume and intricacy you might expect from an 8 piece. Shy and softly spoken, she forewent canned stage banter to instead deliver music in heavy doses along with  German Anne Müller on Cello and Canadian Mika Posen on Violin.

At one stage Obel plays an ’embarrassing diary song from my high school time’ which sounds like a piece any classical or pop music performer would happily call their crowning glory. Such is the strength of the material in her set, where throughout the evening there was never a weak link, nor a boring moment. Unlike her supporting act – Obel has a substantial linking sound but notably  distinctive songs.

With a retro and sparse set , her bandmates often performed in the warm orange glow of stage lights, with the olde-worlde cinematic lights behind them gently firing up to punctuate moments when the cellos violent interludes would shake the room. Everything about the set, lighting and presentation spoke of the same level of precision and restraint that goes into her music.

Most importantly, Obel delivered an absolute one two punch in the field of live vocals.  I entered the concert almost certain that some sort of digital effects must be at work to make her voice sound so  affecting and ethereal. Alas, aside from some basic echo and layering effects, her voice is essentially ‘as is’.

Cuts from her initial recording ‘Philharmonics’ are represented in the set, but given the ‘Aventine’ treatment, that is to say a darker, more textural sound than their initial incarnation. The presentation of songs is almost Einaudi like in Obel’s careful composition, and that is, to say, a huge compliment.

Many were in tears throughout the near 90 minute set and her highlights included her most famous song ‘Riverside’ and the ground-shaking outro from ‘On Powdered Ground’ and the beautiful ‘Words are Dead’. The cello constantly tugging at heartstrings throughout, and the violin occasionally breaking into uplifting interludes.

Obel returned for an encore of course, with plenty on their feet as she walked off stage from the final bow.


The Barbican is a grandiose icon of London’s dedication to renovating ugly concrete mistakes of 70s and 80s architecture into vital, relevant art spaces inside. It remains a beautiful, interesting space  with a startling lack of toilet facilities in favour of expensive and overpriced wine bars for the upper crust arty sorts the space attracts.

Where The Barbican fails in critics eyes is that it produces a relatively dry audio quality in it’s concert spaces, meaning sound is often not enjoying the reverberation it aims for- and subsequently you can easily differentiate instruments from one another – potentially problematic for orchestras, who’s ultimate goal of course is to create a symphony of sound.

No such problem afflicted Obel  who’s music often focused on three very distinct layers of sounds, which almost are designed to fizzle into the dark abyss around the performers. When an aching echo was required, the performers suitably produced it. Deep bass shook the hall to it’s core from the cello with the huge lights behind her flaring up on the number ‘On Powdered Ground’ to incredible effect and rapturous applause.

In Agnes Obel The Barbican probably hit the bullseye on the perfect kind of act this space should accommodate. More than a one woman show, but not large enough to encounter the orchestral sound problems that have been publicized, the beautiful hall is entrancing when light is projected against it’s layered acoustic walls – and this was one audience member who was entranced from start to finish.

Well Played, Ms. Obel.

Gig Review: Agnes Obel at the Barbican Deli Llama
Live Ability
Wine Tears

Summary: In all, one of the finest performances you'll find a concert hall worldwide. If Agnes Obel comes to town in the future, make sure you buy tickets now.



User Rating: 5 (1 votes)
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