Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Mostly Autumn - Leamington Spa Review

It was the second gig in two days. After the arena rock of Def Leppard and Whitesnake the night before, this time it was the relatively intimate confines of The Assembly in Leamington Spa for an evening with Mostly Autumn. They are the band I have seen live more than any other, and one of their concerts is always to be looked forward to. When this special end of year show was released months ago, I knew that it had to be done. The adverts were enough to get mouths watering: a full performance of recent album Dressed in Voices (as the band have been doing live ever since it's release last year), a reprise of the 'Pink Floyd Revisited' set that the band performed back in 2004 (this time dubbed 'Mostly Floyd' - probably unofficially), and some rarely played live gems. News came later that the band were to be joined by guests Anna Phoebe (violin) and Chris Backhouse (saxophone) to help make this evening extra special, and to make certain songs possible. Another late addition was Hannah Hird (vocals/keyboards/percussion), who toured with the band for much of 2013 in place of then-member Anne-Marie Helder, who mostly added extra backing vocals during the 'Mostly Floyd' set - but she added extra magic elsewhere also. With a start time of 4:00pm, this was going to be a long one. I inferred from this that it would be a special night, possibly on a par with the last time I saw the band at this venue: former frontwoman Heather Findlay's farewell show in 2010; but I was not prepared for just how special this show would be. So, after a day looking around the Christmas Market in Leamington Spa, I got down to the venue for around 4:00pm ready to go.

Mostly Autumn played a short acoustic set to get the evening started, acting as their own support band in a way. It was a strange, but highly enjoyable collection of Mostly Autumn classics, rarities, and solo performances from the band members. Nowhere to Hide (Close my Eyes) and Never the Rainbow opened the show, and saw Chris Johnson (vocals/guitar) actually take the lead on his acoustic guitar while main man Bryan Josh (vocals/guitar) concentrated on singing and strummed the chords away happily. Olivia Sparnenn (vocals/percussion) harmonised beautifully on the former, and owned the latter as it took on a smokey bar vibe. The stripped down version of Breathing Space oldie The Rain Song that has been played fairly regularly since Sparnenn took over the role of frontwoman in the band also got an airing, but after this the set took a strange but pleasing turn. Angela Gordon (vocals/flute/keyboard/whistle), who has been back in the fold for nearly all of this year's shows, took the lead on a cover of Christy Moore's Celtic rocker Ride On which went down a storm, and showed that Gordon's voice is extremely powerful and versatile. Alex Cromarty (vocals/guitar/drums/percussion) then picked up a guitar for one of his self-penned songs, which was good and also showed that he possesses a great voice too. I did not catch the song's title, but it fit in with the vibe of the rest of the set. We then had Johnson's Gaze, originally sung by Findlay on the Heart Full of Sky bonus disc, but I have always preferred his sparse  acoustic version, where Josh added colour with ebow and gentle electric guitar leads in places. Hird then got behind the piano for one of her own songs, which was beautiful. Again, I did not get the name of it, but it really could be a Mostly Autumn song if it was rocked up a bit (not that it ever will be, but it has a similar vibe). I always liked her contributions during her short time with the band in 2013, and it was good to see her again helping them out. Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts, from the Dressed in Voices bonus disc, has been played at most of the band's shows this year, but it was great to hear this sad and poignant song again. Closing the set was an oldie called Through the Window which I had never heard the band play live before. Josh sung it beautifully, and it was a perfect way to end this mini acoustic set. The setlist was:

Nowhere to Hide (Close my Eyes)
Never the Rainbow
The Rain Song [Breathing Space cover]
Ride On [Christy Moore cover]
{Unknown} [Alex Cromarty solo material]
Final Bow [Hannah Hird solo material]
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Through the Window

After that little collection of surprises, we were treated to the evening's 'proper' support act: Phoebe doing a set of some of her own material, along with composer Aisling Brouwer (keyboards) to accompany her. Really, this should have been billed as Phoebe & Brouwer, as some of the pieces were Brouwer's compositions and was just as important to the set's sound as Phoebe. I saw Phoebe with an acoustic guitarist supporting Anathema in Exeter Cathedral back in March, but this set was much better and much more dramatic. Brouwer's dark piano motifs formed a formidable backdrop for Phoebe's violin to dance over, and the two seemed to have excellent chemistry on stage together, despite only meeting recently as Phoebe said from the stage. This sort of music is not my usual sort of thing, but I really enjoyed the time they were on stage. They did not outstay their welcome, and the music they created together was a thing of power and beauty. It will be interesting to see what this pair come up with in the future.

After a short changeover, the main event started. I have seen many Mostly Autumn shows over the years, but I was not quite prepared for how good this show was going to be. I do not think I have seen the band play a show as long as this (especially if you add in the set too!), and how they managed to keep the energy up throughout I do not know! They truly are one of the best live bands around. The band's first set, as it has been for the majority of the year, was a complete performance of latest album Dressed in Voices. The concept album needs to be played in full, and it was great to see it for a third time (although in Tavistock earlier this year the album was split into two, with the rest of the set sandwiched in the middle, and was missing the bluesy rock of Down by the River for some reason). This was easily the most powerful rendition of the album I have heard live, and the entire band were up for the challenge. Running really took the roof off, as Sparnenn's powerful vocals took the lead in the uptempo, anthemic chorus. My review of the original album, and reviews of the two most recent Tavistock shows will cover my feelings of this album in more detail, so I will not repeat myself too much here. The album's middle section was enhanced though with Phoebe's violin during Skin on Skin and The House on the Hill. On the former, she took the lead after Cromarty's now-customary drum solo and duelled with Josh for prominence. This song always takes on new life live, and turns from a fairly low-key folk rocker to a out-and-out anthem that has something of Jethro Tull about it in places. On The House on the Hill she added some delicate violin lines that really complimented Sparnenn's vocals and Iain Jennings' (keyboards) piano. The album's title track also brought the house down, and by the time they reached the acoustic coda Box of Tears, the band were really firing on all cylinders. It was easily the best version of Dressed in Voices that I have ever heard, and one of the most powerful suites of music I have seen at any concert.

After a short mid-set break, the band came back on stage and surprised the crowd with a rendition of the old epic The Night Sky - a song I am sure I have never heard the band perform live before. Josh sung the spacey prog song with real emotion, as Sparnenn (now positioned at the back of the stage for the ensuing Floyd set) harmonised beautifully. Phoebe was on stage with the band again, and performed the violin part from the original recording, and Josh played a blinding solo towards the end. The rest of this set was the 'Mostly Floyd' set, made up entirely of Pink Floyd covers. I was looking forward to this, being a big Floyd fan myself, as I was sure the band would do their material justice. I was right, and the band steamed through ten Floyd numbers, made up of stone-cold classics with a few surprise choices. Shine on You Crazy Diamond was one of the highlights, with Josh and Jennings really nailing the complex, lengthy intro. The solos were pretty much note-perfect, but played with trademark Mostly Autumn feeling. The chorus was one of the evening's most powerful moments, as Sparnenn, Johnson, Gordon, and Hird all harmonised with Josh to fill the room of voices. Backhouse joined the band onstage for the saxophone outro. There were plenty of excellent moments throughout this set. Sparnenn nailing the wordless vocals during The Great Gig in the Sky was one of them, as was Johnson's vicious rendition of the cynical rocker Sheep. On the Turning Away was one of the surprise numbers, but Josh sung it really well, and the climatic solo was one of the best of the evening. Wish You Were Here of course had everyone singing along, before the moody Comfortably Numb really impressed everyone, with that classic solo present and correct. The set came to an end with the heavy rocker Run Like Hell where Josh and Johnson traded lead vocals as David Gilmour and Roger Waters did on the original recording. That was not all though, as the band came back for a seven (!) song encore, including some more epics and Christmas music. The Gap is too Wide (a song I definitely have never seen the band play before) was first, and I will be honest and say the song has never done that much for me previously. However, witnessing this performance makes me want to go back and revisit it, as it came across very well live. Set regulars Questioning Eyes and Heroes Never Die were as powerful and essential as ever, but the four Christmas songs were so joyus and fun it was them that stole the show late on. Johnson's beautiful version of A Spaceman Came Travelling had the whole crowd singing along, as did I Believe in Father Christmas. Fairytale of New York is my favourite Christmas song though, so I glad they have kept it in the set. Phoebe's violin added to the folk factor though, and they really nailed the vibe of the original. A prog (yes..) version of old standard White Christmas came, where everyone on stage was invited by Josh to solo, which showcased how talented the members of Mostly Autumn really are. It was a strange but great way to end an evening which had been chock full of fantastic performances. The setlist was:

Saturday Night
Not Yours to Take
(See You)
First Day at School
Down by the River
Skin on Skin [w/ Anna Phoebe]
The House on the Hill [w/ Anna Phoebe]
The Last Day
Dressed in Voices
The Library
Box of Tears
The Night Sky [w/ Anna Phoebe]
Shine on You Crazy Diamond - Parts I-V [Pink Floyd cover w/ Chris Backhouse]
Time [Pink Floyd cover]
The Great Gig in the Sky [Pink Floyd cover]
Sheep [Pink Floyd cover]
On the Turning Away [Pink Floyd cover]
Us and Them [Pink Floyd cover w/ Chris Backhouse]
Wish You Were Here [Pink Floyd cover]
Comfortably Numb [Pink Floyd cover]
See Emily Play [Pink Floyd cover]
Run Like Hell [Pink Floyd cover]
The Gap is too Wide [w/ Anna Phoebe]
Questioning Eyes [Breathing Space cover]
Heroes Never Die
A Spaceman Came Travelling [Chris de Burgh cover]
I Believe in Father Christmas [Greg Lake cover]
Fairytale of New York [The Pogues cover w/ Anna Phoebe]
White Christmas [Bing Crosby cover w/ Anna Phoebe & Chris Backhouse]

Overall, this was certainly one of the gigs of the year, and one of the best Mostly Autumn performances I have ever seen. This band continue to amaze me, and it was just a shame the show was not filmed or recorded for future release. It was a special night for the large crowd that had travelled to Leamington Spa, and I am sure the band will be buoyed by the reactions they received, and come back fighting next year. Also, I believe this was the first Mostly Autumn show I have been to that did not include the ever-present Evergreen in the set!

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