SJE Arts was the fifth stop on Grace Petrie’s month-long tour of the
The crowd was bubbling both inside and outside the church, helped on a little by the well-stocked bar that had been set up on one side of the nave. I hadn’t been to a performance at SJE Arts before, but was surprised to note how clearly active a church it is – the stage was set up in front of an ornate rood screen with a large cross perched on top, and oil paintings of the Stations of the Cross adorn the walls on either side. It seemed quite an incongruous setting for an extremely secular singer, something commented on both by Petrie herself and by her promoter, who noted “I don’t do God, but he does have some rather nice buildings” – and indeed, the acoustics were impressive, and the grandeur and solemnity of the building made for an interesting contrast to Petrie’s raw, uncompromising and humorous look at the world’s inequalities.
The gig was opened by another acoustic guitarist, Rainy, who played several bluesy-folk songs. The first few didn’t seem quite big enough for the location, getting a little lost in the large space, but he hit his stride a couple of songs in, with a song called ‘Nothing But Change’ that had one man near me dancing in his seat.
There was a short break after Rainy’s set, and then Grace Petrie came on, to applause that almost shook the windows. Petrie bantered with the crowd, introducing herself as “a socialist feminist lesbian left-wing protest singer, and that is a full-time job”. She talked about how she’d been angry since May 2010, and had been trying to use her music to effect political change and stop people voting Tory ever since, joking “if anything, I’m making things worse!” Having introduced who she was and what she was about for the newbies in the audience, she launched into ‘Farewell to Welfare’, probably her best-known song and a furious critique of austerity and political hypocrisy.
Petrie performs with an air of passion and anger that overlays a strong sense of hopefulness, and a belief in the power of society to take care of all its members, and to do better. She’s also self-deprecating, never taking herself too seriously, something encapsulated in her performance of another one of her well-known songs, ‘Nobody Knows I’m a Fraud’, and in her fluffing the very first line of her “one happy song” about the birth of her niece Ivy.
In bleak and wearying political times, Grace Petrie is exactly the kind of protest singer we need – one who combines anger with humour, and is just as quick to boost the heroes of the time up as she is to tear the villains down. While introducing her song ‘You Build a Wall’, Petrie discussed the term ‘snowflake’, and how it’s used to describe young people who point out injustices in the world, commenting “if the worst thing you can say about young people is they’re too compassionate, I think we’re going to be okay”. Hopefully, we will be – and Petrie is making sure that we have a great soundtrack for the fight.