In a genre of soothing singer-songwriters, folk legend Vashti Bunyan is particularly soothing. But if an evening at home with her records is a gentle way to ease your mind, then seeing her play live fills you with warmth and comfort in a way paralleled only by receiving a letter (yes letter, not email) from a friend when you need it most.
Part of this is down to the fact that, aside from being stripped back to just herself and her long time backing guitarist/vocalist Gareth Dickson, her performance is very faithful to her recordings. That unique timbre that makes her voice sound like falling through a cloud carries us through the evening. It’s familiar and consistent and still so unlike any of her contemporaries or imitators.
But part of what makes the evening so relaxing is that Bunyan is as much a storyteller between songs as she is in her lyrics. There are anecdotes to accompany each song, whether it’s a tale from the 60s or reflections that inspired her more recent work, all filled with laughter. Some of these stories bring unique insight to her music; it’s hard not to hear the Beach Boys reference in “I’d Like to Take a Walk Through Your Mind” after learning that she wrote it when Andrew Loog Oldham told her to write a song combining Tim Hardin, the Mamas and the Papas, and Pet Sounds. And there’s also triumph of the spirit as Bunyan recounts her long road to recognition.
“Nobody took much notice at the time. I was told my songs were quite uncommercial,” she says. “And in the last few years, [‘Train Song’ has] been used in commercials.”
It’s quite special that Bunyan is willing to play the old songs, willing to tell the stories behind them, but also willing to look at what she dreamed about in her 20s with clear-eyed experience of someone in her 70s. Bunyan is kind to her younger self and gives us all an opportunity to be kind to the idealistic versions of ourselves that we might keep out of sight. It’s this generosity that has the crowd on their feet cheering at the end of her set, and that we can use to counter a harsher reality.