Sydney Festival: Mirel Wagner & Nadia Reid

Scott Wallace
11th Jan 2016

At St. Stephen's Uniting Church.

Even with the hum of a few electric fans trying to ward off the heat, as well as the swish of handheld fans among the audience, there is a curious hush that permeates St. Stephen’s Uniting Church. It’s the kind of live venue that is only suitable for the most delicate and expressive forms of music.

Beneath the enormous stained-glass window decorated with haloed figures, Nadia Reid, along with her back-up vocalist and second guitarist Sam Taylor sat, dwarfed by the enormous cross that is situated above the stage. When the pair started to play though - Reid gently strumming and fingerpicking while Taylor’s ghostly electric guitar provided fluttering texture – their sound filled up the room.

Amidst the impressive reverb of the church, Nadia Reid’s heartfelt folk songs grew in size and stature, as did her remarkably rich and confident voice. The New Zealand singer-songwriter kept the banter to a minimum (“Sam is from the top of the country and I’m from the very bottom.”), her personality shone through in every note she played and every word she sang or spoke.

Following Nadia Reid’s set, Finnish singer Mirel Wagner took the stage. Tall and effortlessly stylish in all white, Wagner’s soft voice and curved accent played completely differently to Nadia Reid’s in the space of the church. Unaccompanied aside from her own minimalistic guitar playing, every word rang clear and the dusky ambience of her tormented love songs and pitch black murder ballads took over.

It was appropriate that the sun gradually set throughout the first set, and by the time Wagner took the stage, the stained glass windows had darkened almost completely and only the soft, coloured stage lights remained. The two artists may seem similar on paper, but their two sets brought completely different atmosphere to the venue.

Each of the performers were compelling in their own way. Despite the limited sonic palette of guitars and voice, they brought almost entirely opposite approaches to the stage, from the luscious and lovely Nadia Reid, to the dark and dreamy cyclical reveries of Mirel Wagner.

It’s telling when an audience remains almost completely still for the duration of a performance. It felt as if any movement may have broken the spell. Folk gigs are never as dynamic as other genres, but Mirel Wagner and Nadia Reid made their music rapturously beautiful, tender and enrapturing as only the best performers can.

You can see Mirel Wagner opening for Australian post-rock legends Dirty Three at the State Theatre, also as part of Sydney Festival. Concert photos of Mirel Wagner and Nadia Reid by Prudence Upton.