Since leaving Mostly Autumn in 2010, Heather Findlay has been relatively quiet. Live appearances have been sporadic, but when they come around they really hit the spot. January saw the release of her full length album of original material since leaving Mostly Autumn. Titled The Illusion's Reckoning the album was a collaboration with American songwriter Dave Kerzner and released under the name Mantra Vega. Those eagerly awaiting some new material from Findlay lapped it up, as the album is excellent. To support the album, Findlay has assembled a new version of 'The Heather Findlay Band' (which there have already been a few!) to take the album on tour around the UK (with a date in the Netherlands to kick everything off). Joining Findlay this time around are: John Mitchell (vocals/guitar) from It Bites and Arena; long-time collaborator Chris Johnson (guitar/keyboards/vocals); Stuart Fletcher (bass guitar); Alex Cromarty (vocals/drums/harmonium); and Findlay's long-time friend Angela Gordon (keyboards/flute/whistles/recorder/vocals). With four of the six main Mantra Vega musicians forming part of Findlay's touring band, this current tour is as close to a Mantra Vega tour as you are likely to get. The show, the first of the UK tour, was also a reason for me to go back to Leicester for the first time in nearly two years. It was good to go back, even if some really late trains curtailed by time there somewhat. I will hopefully not leave it as long next time! I saw a few shows at The Musician while I was living in the city and, in fact, it was the last place I saw Findlay play a full-length show back in 2012. I saw her in acoustic mode at 2014's Trinity charity show in Leamington, but it had been four years since seeing her in her full glory!
Opening the show was harpist Sarah Dean, who played a handful of songs to the small crowd who had got to the venue early. This was the first time I had heard any harp played live, and she really brought the instrument to life. She sung beautifully too, and the harp and vocal combination worked really well. The solo singer/songwriter thing usually is not my thing but Dean brought something new to the genre (if you can call it that). She only played four songs, but the growing crowd seemed to warm to her, and she was well-received.
Johnson's alternative rock band Halo Blind were the evening's main support, which made sense considering three of the band (Johnson, Fletcher, and Cromarty) are also currently playing with Findlay. I last saw the band (under their former name of Parade) supporting Bryan Josh in Bedford, but that was quite a few years ago and Johnson is the only musician to still be in the band now. Johnson, despite sharing lead vocals with Andy Knights (vocals/guitar/keyboards), is the band's focal point as the songs have his unique approach to songwriting all over them. I struggle with the band's latest album Occupying Forces, but hearing some of the songs live (their debut album The Fabric did not feature at all) has improved my opinion of it somewhat. That is not to say that I do not like the album or think that it is bad, I just struggle to get into it. The band's 45 minute set was very enjoyable however, and the songs work well live despite their complex and atmospheric arrangements. Chris Farrell (guitar) stood out too, with lots of excellent ebow work and some strange, off-kilter soloing. I will see the band again at the Cambridge Rock Festival, so I shall make sure to give Occupying Forces some more spins in the meantime.
It was Findlay that everyone was here to see however, and her set was the perfect mix of old and new. As promised, she played the entire of The Illusion's Reckoning album first, before delving into her back catalogue afterwards. Dean joined Findlay and her band onstage for the show singing backing vocals and adding percussion, recorder, and harp occasionally when required. The new album came across really well live, with the large band able to replicate the warm, atmospheric sound of the album on stage. Lead single Island got things going, and was a perfect way to start the show with it's simple melodies and fluid Mitchell solo. Cromarty sung Kerzner's vocal parts from behind the drum kit, which worked well, and his voice really suited the haunting and dark Veil of Ghosts perfectly. The spiky, gothic chorus with the three voices of Findlay, Gordon, and Dean was extremely rousing, and one of the highlights of the night. Lake Sunday, Mountain Spring, and the album's soaring title track were also highlights of the early part of the set. The latter is a real prog epic, with plenty of chance for Mitchell to solo. The Illusion's Reckoning is one of my favourite albums released so far this year, so getting the chance to hear it live in full was a real treat. Another standout moment during the first part of the show was the acoustic I've Seen Your Star which featured some lovely harp playing from Dean. The second half of the show featured material from Findlay's past. It started with a powerful version of the Mostly Autumn classic Carpe Diem with Johnson seated at the piano and Gordon playing the flute. Mitchell really nailed the lengthy outro solo, and the whole band had really hit their stride by this point. Two Odin Dragonfly numbers also featured, newly arranged to suit a big band. Magpie really rocked, with Gordon's flute melodies at the song's centre, the epic Magnolia Half-Moon sounded like it was always supposed to be played by a large rock band. In between the two was Mona Lisa the sole offering from Findlay's solo EP The Phoenix Suite. Caught in a Fold was another highlight. Previous Heather Findlay Band line-ups have changed the arrangement of this song, but with Gordon and her flute present, the band played a version close to Mostly Autumn's original. Safe to say, the song rocked the house! There was a little surprise thrown in near the end, when the band played Why Do We Stay? a song Mitchell wrote for his Lonely Robot project. Findlay sung guest vocals on the song originally, so the song felt at home in the set. Closing the show was a stunning version of the old Mostly Autumn classic Shrinking Violet. I had not heard the song live since Findlay's last show with Mostly Autumn in 2010, so to hear it again was a real treat. It was easily the highlight of the whole show, and her band did a stunning rendition of it. The setlist was:
Every Corner [Mantra Vega material]
Island [Mantra Vega material]
Veil of Ghosts [Mantra Vega material]
Lake Sunday [Mantra Vega material]
Mountain Spring [Mantra Vega material]
In a Dream [Mantra Vega material]
Learning to be Light [Mantra Vega material]
I've Seen Your Star [Mantra Vega material]
Island (Reprise) [Mantra Vega material]
The Illusion's Reckoning [Mantra Vega material]
Carpe Diem [Mostly Autumn material]
Magpie [Odin Dragonfly material]
Magnolia Half-Moon [Odin Dragonfly material]
Caught in a Fold [Mostly Autumn material]
Why Do We Stay? [Lonely Robot cover]
Shrinking Violet [Mostly Autumn material]
Overall this was a stunning gig from Findlay, and easily the best I have seen her do since leaving Mostly Autumn. The current band she has assembled really bring her songs to life, and the current setlist is the perfect balance of old and new. I got her, Fletcher, and Cromarty to sign my copy of The Illusion's Reckoning after the show too, which was awesome.