“Not a lot of churches are cool, not like this one. But then again it’s a chapel.” So meanders cult beatbox comic Reggie Watts tonight at the Union Chapel. He’s right, The Union Chapel in Islington (“It used to be pronounced ‘Isle-ing-ton’ he riffs) is atmospheric, the only shame is that Watt’s roundabout wit offers little to worship.
Built for comedy, with his hulking frame and wayward afro, the German-born, Brooklyn-based performer was once described by musical maestro Brian Eno thus: “Is he a comedian? A singer? A performance artist? I've seen him a few times since then and I still can't decide.” For many tonight this enigma was equally enchanting, but for me “entertaining soundscapist” was the most enthused response I could draw from within.
In between his dial-fiddling, switch-flicking and loop-pedalling a capella compositions musical virtuoso Watts goes off on less disciplined, semi-improvised spoken riffs. Tonight he regales us with how Druids and Romans clashed in the time of Boudicca, though the exploration of it is as absorbing as his superficial deconstruction of current Bond movie Skyfall that kicks off his set.
For the most part the Watt’s wit is a kind of stoned idiot-savant jazz man jive so London is “the only capital city to have the highest population of people from here” and “life is cyclical, but we are holographic reflections of ourselves – so let’s enjoy it.”
Aside from such moments of lo-fi cheek, haphazard in their effect, Watts occasionally has some more resonant material. A soulful ballad about reliance gives food for thought: “Credit cards are awesome/I’d never trust myself to have one [key change] me no likey owe some money to the man.” This subsequently leads to a riff on self-reliance versus abstract market forces and finally there’s something tangible for the twee-free soul to latch on to.
Sometimes similarly twee is the support act, Daniel Simonsen, this year’s Foster’s Edinburgh comedy Award newcomer. Looking like an Eastern European swimming medallist circa 1980 in his tracksuit top the striking, slightly gaunt, young Norwegian feels his way around a funny situation as gingerly as Watts. He gets to his destination in a sly manner. On his ‘man walks into a bank’ joke he deconstructs: “it would have been better if the bank had been open and something funny happened, but it was closed and that really sucks for you guys.”