The London Palladium sits on Argyll Street, hugged on both sides by intimidatingly busy streets (Regent and Oxford). Amongst the chaos of tourists and Christmas shoppers it is difficult to imagine that this is where, in just a few hours, Keaton Henson will make his much-anticipated return to London with his new album Kindly Now.
Henson’s last show here was at the Roundhouse in February, and the Palladium is a huge step up for the singer. Yet, the theatrical and dramatic setting seems more suited to his emotionally charged acoustic and classical pieces. He has released four official albums thus far, and being a fan of him since his first, I was worried about how much of his varied catalogue he would actually play. In fact, there was a slight fear that he wouldn’t play at all; Henson’s anxiety – which is the basis for many of his heartbreakingly honest songs – has meant that he rarely performs.
But, after a short preface by a small classical ensemble (including cellist Ren Ford, who he collaborated with on the 2015 classical album Romantic Works), he does take to the stage. The 2,000 strong audience are immediately silenced by the strength of his music, and while the erratic lighting is sometimes distracting, they are held captive for the full hour that he plays. He deftly moves between the grand piano and his guitar throughout the set, performing a wide range of songs that showcase the best of his work. Despite his introversion, his voice is strong, and echoes around the expansive theatre in songs like ‘Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us’, which has been reborn with the inclusion of Ren Ford and the rest of the classical ensemble.
However, not all songs have been changed – ‘Small Hands’, one of the three singles from his first album Dear… sounds almost exactly like the record, with Henson performing alone. As with most of his songs, because of their honesty and tense emotional quality, it almost feels like he is singing personally to each and every one of us there – which he does when he dedicates ‘You’ to the audience. The poetic quality of lines such as ‘If you must work, work to leave some part of you on this Earth’ are undoubtedly personal but also universal, and it’s so hard not be touched by their significance. While Henson may joke on stage that his songs are self-centered, their poignancy touches innate anxieties in each and every one of us, and makes seeing these songs performed live much more spellbinding than they would be in listening to the record.
Henson ends with his cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, a song that is even more affecting due to the events of this week. In fact, Henson admits that he meant to play the song for the last time a few weeks ago in Amsterdam, but following the news of Cohen’s passing he felt he had to play it one more time. The touching irony of this makes the moment even more heartfelt, and Henson performs this with such power that his fear and anxiety over performing is forgotten. Despite the difficulty of being there, no doubt felt by him, Henson has approached each and every song with strength, so it is no wonder that he receives a standing ovation at the end. With every note Henson has plucked a heartstring, culminating in a jubilant and arresting show.