Iowa native Sarah Darling has been embraced by the UK country music audience since she made her debut at C2C: Country to Country back in 2016. A Grand Ole Opry veteran with over 80 appearances on the famous stage, Darling released her third album, Dream Country, in 2017 to critical acclaim. After a sell-out show at London’s St Pancras Old Church last December, she’s returned to the UK for her first ever headline tour, kicking off last night at London’s Union Chapel.
Darling opened her set with You Don’t Have To Be Lonely Tonight, a song from her 2013 EP Home To Me. It was something of a departure from previous performances of hers I’d seen, with an irresistibly toe-tapping rhythm that her vocal almost glided over as she jammed with her band. She then moved into Where Cowboys Ride, which she called ‘a love letter to Wyoming’ and which evoked the Wild West with its lovely imagery and traditional feel.
Throughout her performance Darling combined songs from across her three previous albums and her EP, mixing in uptempo numbers such as the dramatic Tell That Devil and the tongue-in-cheek More Issues Than Vogue with slower numbers like the wistful Starry Eyes and her duet with co-writer Jessica Sharman on Diamonds. She also showcased some new material, including the summery Spanish-influenced Shimmer and her current single Wasted, with its clever wordplay and 90s singer-songwriter vibes. Of the four covers she performed during the evening, for me the highlight was her version of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, which she sang with Katie Pruitt. The lilting melody and their gorgeous harmonies really lifted the song and enhanced its old-school folk feel.
One thing I particularly liked about Darling’s set was hearing her songs performed with a full band for the first time. For me it added a lot of energy and a lush, layered feel to the melodies – particularly with the addition of the violin – that put a new spin on the likes of Anchor and the bluesy Bad Habit. However, the arrangements were kept simple in order to allow Darling’s vocal to really stand out. Her voice has a lovely rich tone to it and a smooth quality that added warmth to the nostalgic The Boy Never Stays, the playful, gospel-influenced Home To Me – which got by far the biggest crowd response of the night – and the yearning, cinematic Montmartre.
Darling closed her set with Halley’s Comet, which has become something of a signature song for her. It began with a melodic intro then built up the layers of instrumentation, yet her sweet vocal still came through strongly. She did very well at capturing the emotion and hopeful feel of the lyrics but whilst maintaining excellent control, and the final huge note she hit seemed completely effortless. The crowd, who’d been listening intently throughout, rewarded her with a standing ovation. She then came back on to perform an acoustic version of Stargazer, which felt like something from a film soundtrack with its lullaby-like melody and showed off her voice really well.
Overall I felt Darling put on a solid performance and offered something for everyone in her set. It was nice to see a different side of her on the more uptempo songs, but the ballads that she’s known for was where her honeyed vocals really shone. She also had a very engaging stage presence, jamming with her band and chatting with the audience throughout. Although there weren’t any hugely show-stopping moments for me, it was a very enjoyable evening and fans of singer-songwriter country won’t be disappointed.
Set list: 1. You Don’t Have To Be Lonely Tonight 2. Where Cowboys Ride 3. Tell That Devil 4. Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want (Smiths cover) 5. Starry Eyes 6. Shimmer 7. Diamonds (with Jessica Sharman)/Yellow (Coldplay cover) 8. Wasted 9. More Issues Than Vogue 10. The Boy Never Stays 11. Wildflowers (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cover)/Anchor 12. Bad Habit 13. Home To Me 14. Landslide (Fleetwood Mac cover) (with Katie Pruitt) 15. Wings 16. Montmartre 17. Halley’s Comet 18. Stargazer Performance date: 5th March 2018