Graded on a Curve:
Sarah McQuaid,
The St Buryan Sessions

Based in the English town of Cornwall, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sarah McQuaid has released five full-length records, but never a live album. That is, until now. The St Buryan Sessions isn’t a standard performance document however, as it was captured on July 1 of 2020 in the St Buryan church in Cornwall but without an audience, McQuaid having altered her plan, foiled by COVID-19, to cut a conventional live disc while on tour last year. Sharply recorded and produced by her longtime tour collaborator Martin Stansbury, it’s out October 15 on 180g blue vinyl in a gatefold sleeve and on CD through Shovel and a Spade Records.

The idea of cutting a live record sans audience might not seem like a big deal given the post-Coronavirus proliferation of virtual performances, but what sets McQuaid’s endeavor apart is its seriousness; while so many pandemic-era livestream happenings, at least in my experience, have been loose and modest, occasionally unfocused, and too often uninspiring, The St Buryan Sessions is distinguished by rigorous conception and expert follow-through.

To expand on the above, McQuaid was on the road in early 2020 when the first upsurge of the virus left her and crew, including Stansbury, little choice but to ferry back home with the goal of a live record dashed. Except then the idea was formulated, partly inspired by the increase of performances without crowds, to record in the church in Cornwall, not a random decision, as McQuaid had been singing in the choir at St Buryan since moving to the town.

In his notes for the disc (McQuaid also contributes her own), Stansbury gets to the gist of it: “There was a set list and she was to play her set and we would record it.” He also adds that that there were a few concessions, like the sensible one of stopping for bathroom breaks. And also, camera adjustments, as there is concert film of the performance, along with a documentary (both are available on a 16GB engraved wooden USB stick purchasable separately or as part of the vinyl and CD bundles).

The use of a set list is reflected in the balance of songs from her most recent album, six of the fifteen, and her earlier work, which reaches back to her 1997 debut When Two Lovers Meet, though the track selected from that release, “Charlie’s Gone Home,” is described by McQuaid as one of the first songs she ever wrote, dating from the 1980s.

Perhaps taking advantage of the lack of potentially restless humans, The St Buryan Sessions opens with the a cappella “Sweetness and Pain,” a song heard in fragmented form on Walking Into White but seamlessly unified here as the strength and beauty of McQuaid’s voice gets immediately emphasized. Apparent just as quickly is the sheer warmth of the recording (reflecting the intimacy of the room), which is doubly impressive given that McQuaid’s touring PA and monitor were used.

The majority of The St Buryan Sessions features McQuaid on guitar, either acoustic, as on “The Sun Goes On Rising,” a song from her 2012 album The Plum Tree and the Rose, or electric, which she plays on numerous selections from If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, including that album’s title track, which follows “The Sun Goes On Rising” in the sequence here.

While there is certainly a contrast between the clean hollow body picking and the plugged-in strums, the songs share an unhurried, almost leisurely quality as they accumulate intensity, especially “Dangerous,” as McQuaid’s vocal gets live looped by Stansbury. Additionally, both tracks highlight her songwriting abilities (notable, as she began as more of a song interpreter), an aspect that’s illuminated even further by “The Silence Above Us” as she sets down the guitar for the church’s Yamaha concert grand piano.

For “One Sparrow Down,” McQuaid, accompanying herself with only a floor tom, shifts into storytelling mode, relating the tale of her cat Nightshade and the titular bird who takes a fall. A more familiar slice of folky tale-spinning emerges with “Charlie’s Gone Home,” the song the first in an appealing stretch of acoustic numbers that hits a high point with the wonderfully pretty “Time to Love” and then follows it with a version of “Autumn Leaves” where McQuaid’s singing reminds me a little of Roberta Flack (as much in phrasing as in sound).

The St Buryan Sessions’ latter portion offers a few sweet twists directly related to the recently departed guitarist Michael Chapman, who, while serving as producer on McQuaid’s Dangerous album, stirred her interest in playing the electric guitar. Indeed, it’s Chapman’s Ibanez Artist electric that she’s playing on the tough-toned instrumental “The Day of Wrath, That Day,” and on the next track, “The Tug of the Moon,” the power of her vocal in the song enhanced by ripples of sustain.

But maybe the biggest surprise is a version of Chapman’s “Rabbit Hills,” with McQuaid switching back to piano and reminding me just a bit of John Cale circa Paris 1919. It’s followed by “The Last Song,” a finale on acoustic featuring more beautiful picking combined with some of The St Buryan Sessions’ most emotionally resonant singing. It’s the kind of song that can inspire a listener to break out in applause. So good news: Sarah McQuaid plays an album release benefit show at St Buryan church on Oct 15, an event kicking off scheduled performances in the UK, Europe, Ireland, and the USA deep into 2022.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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