Few of Tom Chaplin’s Twelve Tales of Christmas are particularly cheery, but they brought warmth and energy to a bitterly cold night on the South Bank.
If we need a reminder that Christmas is about more than just parties, presents, and festive fun, Chaplin’s original songs address the opposite – sadness, loss and loneliness.
‘We Remember You This Christmas’ and ‘For the Lost’, sedate songs with rousing refrains, are inspired by the Manchester Arena attack. Eight months on, they give voice to the unspeakable thought about how families cope with the loss of children at a time of year so geared towards them.
These are spliced with some well-conceived covers. A shimmery version of the Pretenders’ ‘2,000 miles’ is wispy and delicate (and decidedly less icy than Chrissie Hynde’s mood of late), while East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ is stripped of its jingles and anointed by Chaplin’s soaring vocals.
The moment of intrigue comes with the announcement of ‘Walking in the Air’, the famous choral classic. After being warned off the song by his peers, Chaplin went to Howard Blake’s house to present his idea. Hints of Chris Isaak and Matt Bellamy emerge in this dark, guitar-led, slightly psychedelic adult reinvention.
Therein lies the crux of it all. If Christmas is for kids, it leaves the adults with plenty to deal with and plenty to think about.
It’s not as if you can’t have fun – Chaplin is cheeky and likeable, full of nervous jokes. (“I’m just putting off the inevitable here”, he quips, trying to avoid playing the piano.) The finale, a crazy mashup of ‘White Christmas’ with ‘Live and Let Die’, sends everyone home with a booming smile.
But it’s not just about fun, and we don’t all experience things the same forever. Chaplin has reputedly labelled the album an apology for ‘the Christmases he’s ruined’. It’s a joy to witness schmaltz become elevated by earnestness, a point surely echoed by all who’ve witnessed the free busking on behalf of The Big Issue.
The Twelve Tales wasn’t purely a Christmas show. Numbers from Chaplin’s 2016 debut solo album, The Wave, provide the comfort of familiar ground. “There we go!”, he spurs in near relief following a pitch-perfect rendition of the anthemic ‘Quicksand’.
And for Keane fans, there was a smattering of the whole timeline, from ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ – itself redefined as a Christmas song in 2013 – to ‘Sovereign Light Café’, the most celebrated track from the band’s final album to date, Strangeland.
Chaplin hinted that the gig could be his last for some time. It’s a shame, and I hope it’s for positive reasons. He’s a mercurial talent, and so strong a performer, many of his works sound richer live than recorded.
A duet with supporting artist Fyfe Dangerfield for the plaintive final tale, ‘Say Goodbye’, was the highlight of the night.
With thanks to everyone in the audience who filmed the great moments so I didn’t have to.