Originally published in Third Coast Review.
Sisterhood is literally the definition of this band’s name. Saint Sister is an Irish two-piece band, which Saturday night, made its debut stop in Chicago at Schubas Tavern. The duo is made up of friends Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty, who said that sisterhood was a key theme in inventing their band name, along with alliteration. But, perhaps the first part of Saint Sister’s name ought to be explored, given the style of music MacIntyre and Doherty present Saturday night.
Schubas has always been a hotspot for underrated performances like those by The Bones of JR Jones, Nightlands and Eliot Sumner. These performances rely on everything but costume and lighting effects. What’s saintly about this sisterhood is the foundation they’ve built for one another, having each found for themselves possibly the best musical fit. MacIntyre and Doherty approached the stage without frills – just their angelic soprano vocals, precise rhythm and loop pedals that Doherty quietly announced was giving her problems.
We couldn’t tell.
The loop pedal aided in setting this performance apart from others whose music sounds the same on stage as it does recorded. The key figure in that differentiation, though, was Doherty’s composition of instruments, including her beautiful harp strums, and her use of the harp’s soundbox as the percussion. She emits a hollow sound with her hands, forming two different shapes as she strikes the sides of the harp, then letting the loop pedal do the rest.
MacIntyre is in charge of lyrics, which she said often lament about another person, be it a love interest, a family member or a friend. “It’s always about…a lot of longing and trying to figure stuff out,” she said, and that usually is the case for a lot of artists. But Saint Sister’s presentation and representation of those relatable crises is unique with the help of those harp booms, silence and the sound of wind, perhaps reflecting off those famous cliffs in Ireland.
Those sounds can either keep company the protagonist of the song in times of longing, or wrap her in complete cold.
And not only are MacIntyre and Doherty’s vocals in perfect rhythmic unison, but in songs like “Steady,” a sense of urgency translates through instrumental rhythmic pairing. Radio voices and the keyboard, which finally plays a lead role in a folk performance, and the powerful strumming of the harp are bright together in this new song.
Prepare to get the chills on Friday, when Saint Sister releases its first record, Shape of Silence. According to The Irish Times, the band has been identified with atmosfolk, a genre they have molded to since their first song together, “My Baby Must Sleep.”
Doherty has infused into those silent spaces the sounds of even a monotonic accordion, emitting only static into the long, wood room. And MacIntyre uses a pad production box to deliver the cooing of choir children in “Corpses,” a literal poetic device.
Those who started out sitting on the famous Schubas benches off to the side, were standing and swaying by the end of the show. And those seeking refuge from the rain, unexpectedly fell in love with the sound of Saint Sister Saturday.