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I’m back in another Salford Church tonight, for another sublime songstress (witnessed Linnea Olson in Sacred Trinity Church some months ago) but this time it’s the extraordinary Ren Harvieu at St Philips, a scaffolding covered church that night that stands in the shadow of yet another spired building, Salford Cathedral.  There is something about these ecclesiastical settings that lends a peculiar purity to performances. Perhaps it’s the height of the ceilings, the residue of holy energy, the mighty eagle lectern, the feeling of being in a place of power, I’m not sure - but the anticipation for Miss Harvieu to take to that stage was rising wildly like sacred smoke from magical incense as it neared nine o clock and the support band, The Jar Family left the stage.

Let’s talk about them for a moment.  What a motley crew they were! It was remarkable how they all fitted on stage and even more so when they revealed one of them was missing due to “man flu”. The band hail from Hartlepool and though they would probably be filed under folk  in most systems , they straddled a whole host of genres, sometimes morphing into a heavy blues vein with an almost Santana kind of energy.  Their musicianship was excellent and they were a likeable bunch but I was left feeling  that perhaps they were wearing a few too many hats (metaphorically) although literally, hats were quite a prominent feature too.  I think their more rockabilly numbers made up the strongest  material  and I enjoyed these the most -  though as they are called The Jar Family (jar as in jarring or a measure of alcohol?) perhaps they don’t wish to confine themselves and why should they? It just came across as a little too much of a mish-mash at times but having said that, they were fun and I’d happily watch them again.

It’s all been said before I’m sure but Ren Harvieu  has an astonishing  voice which belies her years. It’s impossible not to feel at least a little surprised by the gravity, maturity and perfection of her vocal delivery. How can one so young pack so much pathos in each line?  But the truth is a voice like this is a gift, a rare and precious talent and whereas Billie Holiday or Judy Garland sound as though they’ve been around the block and had their voices weathered and polished by that old devil called love,  Ren just seems too young and bright to have walked that path as yet. However, when she opens her mouth and climbs into a song  it’s clear she feels it and delivers it with absolute authenticity.  I’m startled by her range, her subtle yet masterful  ability to glide over and under the piano melody that shares much of her journey.

The first record I heard by Ren was Through the Night  on Radio Two about a year or two ago, probably like many people. Through the Night is a treat for the senses, it’s not just the audio, it’s the kind of song you can almost touch, being so lush and sensual yet equally transportive and light, it flows like a magic current that starts and ends in the heart. It was a joy to hear her open with this track and I wondered excitedly what else was in store.

Ren was refreshingly natural and admitted she found between song chat a bit difficult but she need not have worried. She was herself and that’s the best thing you can be. I instantly warmed to her lack of airs and graces and honesty. She told us she and the band didn’t have a great deal of material and so a few covers were weaved into the set. Her own material stands happily beside any of the classics she performed for us. I was particularly taken with her cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You which she told us was the song that got her interested in singing. Hats off to Joni for that then! It was easy and touching to see the young girl she described listening, transfixed, in her bedroom to the track on repeat play.  Even more spine-tingling to see that now she can stand in front of a crowded church and sing that song to the world, and to know that others are perhaps listening to her songs in their bedrooms on repeat play.

This was one of those performances that had no lulls, no point where my mind wandered off and despite various changes in tempo it hung together beautifully. The audience were one hundred percent connected and with some of her family present it was understandable that they seemed to be feeling each note with her. Ren mentioned she was working on her new album and that it would be very different which left me curious of the direction she might take there. She did joke about being tired of “retro” so that may be a clue but the thing is, with a voice like she has been blessed with, she could make anything work and I for one wouldn’t want to pigeon-hole her.

Perhaps my favourite love song of all time, the Beatles Something was  delivered as an encore. Ren said it was a favourite of hers also and sang it with such reverence and feeling that I held my breath.  Something in the way she sings...a beautiful night that felt like candles were burning throughout it, even though they weren’t.  A star was definitely born in Salford around twenty three years ago. Long may she shine!

Review by Mary O’Meara
Photos by Melanie

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