Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Mostly Autumn - Bilston Review

Despite Bilston, which is a relatively anonymous West Midlands town on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, being somewhat of a Mecca for the grassroots rock and prog scenes in the UK it has never been a regular gigging haunt of mine. For a non-driver it is not the easiest of places to access (it requires a slow tram ride from either Birmingham or Wolverhampton) and usually there is an easier option when it comes to choosing which show of a tour to attend. Every so often however, a trip to the excellent Robin 2 venue in Bilston is required - and what a better reason to do so than to spend another evening in the excellent company of Mostly Autumn. The Bilston date was announced before the rest of their UK shows, and I knew many of the shows would be scheduled in earlier due to frontwoman Olivia Sparnenn-Josh's pregnancy. May was already shaping up to be a busy month, so I booked to see the band in Bilston in case their yearly trip down to the Tavistock clashed with other plans. As it turns out, the dates worked out perfectly but I will never turn down a chance to see York's finest! The venue also runs a B 'n' B in part of the building too, so it made the trip easier with literally a 30 second walk from the venue to my bedroom after the music finished. While Bilston will never be a regular gig destination for me, it is always nice to go back there every so often. The venue has a loyal following, and the turnouts for shows there are always strong. While not as full as I have seen it in the past there for Mostly Autumn, there was still a strong crowd on a Sunday night which was full of many of the Mostly Autumn regulars - which always makes for a relaxed atmosphere.

Unusually for a Mostly Autumn show there was a support act, and this came in the form of fellow York resident Marc Atkinson. Mostly Autumn and Atkinson have a long history together, and Atkinson has contributed backing vocals to many of the band's album over the years. Atkinson was even in bands with many of the Mostly Autumn alumni long before Mostly Autumn was established in the late 1990s. His performance was just him with his acoustic guitar, and he sang half an hour's worth of pleasant acoustic numbers. Most of the songs came from his most recent solo album, but a couple of numbers from his Riversea project were thrown in. He has a lovely voice, and seeing him live after hearing his name many times over the years made me realise I need to pay more attention to what he is up to. Acoustic acts are not really my thing, but the Riversea album is one I have been meaning to get for a long time and hearing a couple of the songs in this stripped-back form reminded me that it is something I need to investigate. He ended his set with a nice cover of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb which went down well and he received a healthy round of applause as he walked off the stage.

Having only seen Mostly Autumn live less than a month ago, there were no setlist surprises, but with a new set introduced this year to support the new album Sight of Day this was not a problem. The show in Bilston was slightly shorter than the one in Tavistock (although still long by most band's standards at two and a quarter hours) and the band played straight through without the mid-set break. Regular drummer Alex Cromarty was also back in the line-up this time around, having sat out the three Southern shows in May due to prior commitments. As always with Mostly Autumn shows, this was a powerful musical experience full of light and shade - and one I will never tire of. As has become customary over the past couple of years, Angela Gordon (flute/keyboards/vocals) and Chris Johnson (vocals/guitar) get things underway with the instrumental piece Out of the Inn, which builds from a jaunty flute-based piece into a full-on hard rock workout led by founder Bryan Josh's (vocals/guitar) guitar solo as the rest of the band take the stage. This was followed by the gothic rock of In for the Bite from Josh's recent solo album and, as always, provides Sparnenn-Josh wish a dramatic entrance with a soaring vocal display. The set was rejigged somewhat, presumably to ensure the now-heavily pregnant Sparnenn-Josh plenty of chances to rest throughout the night, but the flow was still good. The classic Evergreen came early in the set, which was followed by the dynamic Wild Eyed Skies. Led by Iain Jennings' (keyboards) piano melodies, this song has really re-established itself as a live favourite over the past year or so and shows off the band's heavier side in places. The bluesy prog of The Last Climb gave Sparnenn-Josh a rest, with Gordon singing the harmony vocals at the front of the stage and really wowing the crowd with a lengthy and gorgeous flute solo, before Josh did his best David Gilmour impersonation during his excellent guitar solo. Newer songs came in the second half of the show, with Tomorrow Dies really getting kicking things into high gear again with one of Sparnenn-Josh's best ever vocal displays and the ending guitar harmonies from Josh and Johnson. This song is destined to become a live favourite for a while I think, and the slightly dancy vibe sets it apart from the rest of the band's songs.

Only the Brave is the new Deep in Borrowdale I think, and it really came alive on stage. Gordon's flute was often buried in the mix at the Tavistock show, but it was more prominent here which made the folky instrumental section enjoyable. A highlight of any Mostly Autumn gig however is Mother Nature, which has really established itself again in the set over the past year or so, and this was no different. It really is the ultimate Mostly Autumn song and contains everything that makes the band so great. The gorgeous opening third with Josh and Sparnenn-Josh's vocal harmonies is always spine-tingling, the atmospheric mid-section led by Jennings' keyboard solo always puts the crowd in a dreamlike state, and that piece is shattered by the hard rocking ending led by Josh's guitar work and Cromarty's frantic drumming. The current live version includes a bass solo from Andy Smith at the end which is excellent, and came after some technical issues he was having early in the set which caused a few songs to be rearranged to allow him chance to fix them! Johnson had a chance to shine towards the end, with two of his songs played back to back. Silver Glass is a favourite of many of the band's fans, and his new classic Changing Lives really becoming a true favourite of mine. His singing and songwriting adds so much to Mostly Autumn so I am really pleased he has become part of the band again in recent years. Changing Lives was probably the highlight of the whole show for me, and the cleaner sound mix in Bilston really allowed all the subtleties to shine through. Skin on Skin, not played in Tavistock due to Cromarty's absence, was re-introduced with his customary explosive drum solo; before Sparnenn-Josh's signature song Questioning Eyes and the gorgeous power ballad Tonight rounded off the set perfectly. An encore of course followed, and another new one Raindown really impressed this time with gorgeous harmony vocals from the two ladies in the band, and plenty of flutework from Gordon, including a lengthy intro. Heroes Never Die brought the evening to a powerful and emotional end as it always does, and the band took their bows to big cheers from the good-sized Bilston crowd. The setlist was:

Out of the Inn
In for the Bite [Bryan Josh solo material]
Drops of the Sun
Wild Eyed Skies
The Last Climb
Tomorrow Dies
Only the Brave
The Man Without a Name
Mother Nature
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Silver Glass
Changing Lives
Skin on Skin
Questioning Eyes [Breathing Space cover]
Heroes Never Die

Overall this was another fantastic show from Mostly Autumn. The band never disappoint live, and this show in Bilston was no different. The new material in the set is already starting to become welcomed like old friends, which is always a good sign of the quality of a band's new album. I still hope to the Sight of Day title track live one day, but the band really are on top form at the moment so get to a show if you can!

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