I finally got to see Julie Byrne play live last night at The Sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia which, with its high-vaulted ceiling and serene atmosphere, was the perfect place to see her perform.
LEYA, the opening act from New York City, featured Marilu Donovan on harp and Adam Markiewicz on electric violin and vocals. Their meditative music was perfect for the church setting. Markiewicz’s operatic vocals would have been perfect as part of a Gregorian chant. Donovan’s rhythmic and melodic harp playing anchored their songs. They played for 35 minutes, mostly featuring tracks from their 2022 album Flood Dreams, and got the evening off to a great start.
After a 15-minute intermission, a door opened off the side of the stage and Julie Byrne entered to a large round of applause. Dressed in a black shirt, black pants and black boots with an ornate silver necklace, Julie mesmerized the audience with twelve songs, mostly from her newly released album The Greater Wings. She opened the concert, however, with the popular song I Live Now as a Singer from her previous album Not Even Happiness. The lighting on the Sanctuary stage was pretty harsh, with lights that cast a shadow over Byrne’s eyes, but this also added a somber element that enhanced her introspective songs about love, loss and existence. She then launched into five songs from The Greater Wings album. These included: Portrait of a Clear Day, Flare, Lighting Comes up From The Ground, Moonless, and Summer Glass. Byrne was accompanied by longtime collaborator Jake Faltby who played violin and bass and by Katie Von Schleicher who played keyboards and electronics. These two bandmates provided the sonic foundation for Byrne’s impeccable finger-picking guitar-playing and vocals.
Byrne’s second album Not Even Happiness was released back in 2016 and it took seven years for The Greater Wings to come out. COVID and the untimely passing of her longtime friend, producer, and bandmate Eric Littmann in 2021, who was set to produce the album, pushed the release date back. The album was completed with the help of producer Alex Somers, formerly of the duo Jónsi and Alex, and co-producer of Sigur Rós releases.
Many of the songs on Bryne’s exquisite The Greater Wings album, which were written before Littmann’s passing, include a variety of perspectives on mortality and past love. Byrne’s songs resonate even more forcefully considering the loss of her dear friend. Her new tunes intimately and intricately project her inner feelings and emotions. Singing sans guitar on Moonless, Byrne contemplates the new world around her where “absence remains” while she watches “particles move.”
Byrne’s seventh song was an unreleased track entitled 22. She dedicated this touching hymn-like love song to Littmann. Byrne rounded out the main part of the concert with three more songs from The Greater Wings. These were: the title track, Conversation is a Flow State, and Hope’s Return. But before she began singing the title track, she asked the audience if they knew what “Greater Wings” are. When no one knew the answer, she spoke about how they comprise parts of the base of the human skull and resemble butterfly wings which connect the body to the brain.
Byrne’s concert was intensely soulful and reverent, but she always ended each song with a smile and a charming laugh. After briefly leaving the stage, she returned to play two encore songs. The dirge-like Death is a Diamond was played with the entire band and then she was gracious enough to add another encore. This one was of the magical song Sleepwalker, which she performed by herself, accompanied by her guitar.
The Sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia was an amazing venue and having second row seats allowed me to take some photos and videos which you can see in this review. I was very moved by Byrne’s performance. She has an amazing voice and is a terrific songwriter. I can’t wait to see her again. Don’t miss Julie Byrne if she is in your area as she continues her USA tour tonight at The Bowery Ballroom in NYC. You can check out her tour stops here.