by Kieran Fahy
Who the devil would call a choir ‘The Chicken Soup Choir’? The London Gospel Community Choir. OK. The Mormon Tabernacle. Yep. But The Chicken Soup Choir?
Bear with me. It works.
Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, authors of Chicken Soup for the Soul, chose the title of their ridiculously successful motivational tool because of chicken soup’s restorative powers in homes for the elderly. Just think back to your own school days. My memories of childhood illness are defined by large bottles of Lucozade wrapped in orange cellophane and bowls of hot chicken soup. I was always back at school the next morning. It must have been the soup, right?
So here I am. The remains of the day’s warmth lingers. I could be in Santa Monica: the highway buzzes behind me as I watch the sun fade out, my hand clutching a cool vodka, lime and soda. But I’m not. I’m in Westbourne and I’m clutching a pint. Am I bitter? No, because I’m being gently thrilled.
It’s a Tuesday night and I’m sitting outside Centre Stage. As it approaches eight, I can hear them: voices drifting like an August zephyr, skimming the dusk with honeyed harmonies. This is not the King’s College Choir: they aren’t going to be breathing heavenly carols into my mum’s lounge on Christmas Day. This is different. This is The Chicken Soup Choir and, in its modest Tuesday night way, it’s making me - to quote one of its members - ‘warm and fuzzy’.
This choir doesn’t really do functions. They’re not really for hire: they sing; they feel good; they go home with light heads and even lighter hearts.
Richard Ayley, an electronics technician, who’s been singing with the choir for eleven weeks, enthuses about the spiritual benefits of this kind of singing. ”It’s a shared experience. It gets down into your soul. I measure my week by how long I’ve got until I go to choir. When I go into work, I can feel it. I’m a different person. I’m more confident.”
Julie Staines and Esther Frake have been running the choir since 2009, when it consisted of only ten or so members. It now has over sixty.
“I go home on a high,” says Sarah - a mother of two from Poole - as she ponders the allure of the choir, “and I don’t get to sleep until midnight. I love the community feeling of it.”
The room sizzles with a simple enthusiasm: the talent without the ego. None has auditioned, and only a few have sung beyond amateur level. The majority just want to make sweet noise.
They open the session with Elbow’s One Day Like This – a song that could have been written as a workout for a community choir – and they hold their own, passionately gathering every anthemic component together as they cruise by. Perfect Day, again, allows itself to be poured into the choir’s mould and, again, it stirs you where you like to be stirred.
Other choices seem less well suited to the choral format: One of Us and Sweet Dreams aren’t quite as commanding yet the distinctly unlikely numbers, Sex on Fire and Ash’s Shining Light - surprisingly – stand up as real thrillers. It occurs to me as the opening bars unfold that standing the impossibly delicate harmonies of God Only Knows against naked piano could be asking too much but this lot have the touch and the control to treat it right.
I return to Richard, who has been treated for depression on and off for the last seven years, and ask him how he’d feel if the choir hadn’t happened. “I’d probably be back on the antidepressants by now. They do work. But they take away the good bits as well as the bad bits.” The choir however, says Richard, softens the lows but enhances the highs. I’m starting to see what he means.
So I leave, and my hunger has eased. My recommendation?
Try the soup. It’s very good.
© Kieran Fahy 2010