Sunday, 17 September 2017

Mostly Autumn - Leamington Review

A Mostly Autumn concert at The Assembly in Leamington Spa seems to be an annual event now and is always something to look forward to in the year's gigging calendar. While the band have been playing in Leamington for a number of years, over the past couple of years the shows have become real showcase events. 2015 and 2016 both featured extended shows at The Assembly, with the evenings consisting of acoustic sets, special guests, and setlist surprises featuring lesser-played songs and choice covers. While 2017's visit to Leamington was not quite as expansive as the previous couple of years, the band made the more 'traditional' concert experience an extra special one with a great setlist and an emotionally-charged performance. Despite releasing their twelfth album Sight of Day earlier in the year, 2017 has been a fairly quiet year for Mostly Autumn when it comes to live activity. The pregnancy of frontwoman Olivia Sparnenn-Josh has dictated the band's schedule somewhat but the gigs the band have played so far this year have all been excellent. I saw the band a couple of times earlier in the year, in Tavistock and Bilston, and both shows were excellent. The band debuted some of the new material on these early shows, but seemed to want to hold back the 'bigger' songs of the album for some special showcase shows later in the year. After a quiet summer, during which time Sparnenn-Josh gave birth to a baby girl, it announced that the band's three shows in September (London, Leamington, and a hometown show in York) would all feature the Sight of Day album in full, along with a second set of older material. This made the Leamington show a must-see event. The Assembly is a great place for showcase gigs as the venue is excellent and the town itself is in a very central location which is easy to get to. While I have certainly seem bigger crowds at Mostly Autumn shows over the years, the turnout for this September weekend was not bad at all, and was packed with many of the familiar faces that you see at the band's shows up and down the country.

The band hit the stage at 6:30pm with the rumbling piano intro of Sight of Day, so it was clear the band were going to be showcasing their new album right off the bat. The title track of the new album is one of the best songs the band have ever done in my opinion, and I had been waiting to hear it live for months. It did not disappoint, and it really got the show off to a great start with Sparnenn-Josh's delicate intro vocals atop Iain Jennings' (keyboards) piano melodies really filling the hall. The song is one that builds up over time, and the first part climaxes with a stunning chorus filled with harmony vocals and the band's trademark wall of sound approach. A quieter mid-section gives Bryan Josh (vocals/guitar) his first chance to shine of the evening with a beautiful Floydy guitar solo, before the third part kicks in with Chris Johnson's (vocals/guitar) acoustic guitar chords for a high-energy, melodic closing section. The song showcases everything that is great about Mostly Autumn, and it was great to get the chance to hear it live. The rest of the album followed in the order that it appears on the CD, with each track contributing something magic to the evening. The laid-back rock of Once Round the Sun is a fun number live, with a simple chorus that the crowd really latched onto and a strong instrumental section towards the end that was dominated by Angela Gordon's (flute/keyboards/whistle/vocals) flute melodies. There were some moments in the first set where the sound was somewhat muddy. Hammerdown in particular sounded a little rough, with many of the subtitles buried in the mix, but these moments were fairly minimal. Changing Lives is a personal favourite of mine from the new album so it was a real treat to hear it live again. Johnson sings the song beautifully and it is one of those songs that just changes the band's established formula up a little to keep things fresh. Only the Brave is sure to become a live favourite for years to come, and is one of the most in-your-face hard rock songs the band have done for a while. Josh's bluesy rock riff and strong vocals really carry the song, but the melodic chorus with Sparnenn-Josh's harmony vocals and the powerful folky instrumental section with Gordon's flute once again standing out, help to turn it into a dynamic little song. The album's other epic Native Spirit has never been a particular favourite of mine, but it has grown on me somewhat since the album's release. That being said however, the song came across very well live with the progressive arrangement really working well with Josh's lyrics. The song builds towards a symphonic climax, making great use of the band's two keyboard players, and actually became one the highlights of the set. The band were really on fire by this point and the crowd were really into the show. Raindown really comes alive on stage, and the lengthy ballad is another that is likely to be in the set for quite some time. It is a real vocal showcase for Sparnenn-Josh, and allows her to use both the quieter side of her voice and then unleash some real power towards the end. It also features Gordon a lot, with plenty of flute parts for her to shine and chances for her beautiful voice to be heard harmonising with Sparnenn-Josh. Josh also launched into a really explosive solo towards the end, that really came out of nowhere, and he was playing his guitar so hard that he broke his strap! The first part of the show finished with the whimsical Forever and Beyond, a simple little song with a positive message that brought the Sight of Day part of the show to a triumphant end.

A half an hour break followed, but it was not long before the band were back on stage with a set of the band's older material, which included many real fan favourites. Many of the songs played have been featured a lot over the past couple of years, but that did not seem to phase the crowd who cheered enthusiastically for each number played. The folky instrumental Out of the Inn got the second half off to a great start, before the gothic rock of Josh's solo number In for the Bite reintroduced Sparnenn-Josh for the second set. This second half felt like a victory lap after the triumphant Sight of Day showcase, and the crowd favourites came thick and fast. The folk rock of Skin on Skin was up next, which always features a lengthy and explosive drum solo from Alex Cromarty and a drawn-out instrumental section to close with plenty of soloing from Josh. Evergreen has been brought out of the box again this year after a well-deserved break last year, but it still really hits the spot and is one of the band's signature tunes. Sparnenn-Josh had made the song her own since taking the frontwoman spot seven years ago, and the whole band really work together as a whole to create the emotionally-charged piece. Another of the band's signature tunes Mother Nature followed, which has been enjoying a new lease of life of late with regular live outings. The first half is a gorgeous, organic, and folky song with strong vocal harmonies that climaxes with a power chorus, and the second half is an instrumental showcase, featuring an atmospheric keyboard solo from Jennings and ending with a stark bass solo from Andy Smith. There is a reason it is considered one of the band's best achievements, and it has been great to hear it live so often over the past couple of years. Passengers has not been featured much in the band's sets this year, so it was nice to hear it again after a year or so, and it is another fan favourite with an almost AOR-esque chorus. The short piano ballad Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts just gets better every time you hear it, and it has become a real setlist staple of late and allows Sparnenn-Josh to show off her delicate and emotional vocal delivery over Jennings' simple piano lines. Another recent setlist staple is Johnson's Silver Glass, which is always greeted with a huge cheer and always manages to steal the show. Josh's guitar solo in the piece is one of his best in my opinion and the way Johnson sings it never fails to raise a few internal emotions. The main set came to an end with a great version of Sparnenn-Josh's Questioning Eyes which really seemed to hit harder than usual with her vocal prowess really shining through. After a short walk off stage, the band came back for a run through of Heroes Never Die, which is probably the band's signature song, and a spine-tingling version of Tonight complete with some extended soloing from Josh and a chance to introduce the band. The band took their bows to huge cheers from the crowd, and it was clear this special setlist had had the intended effect. The setlist was:

Sight of Day
Once Round the Sun
The Man Without a Name
Changing Lives
Only the Brave
Native Spirit
Tomorrow Dies
Forever and Beyond
Out of the Inn
In for the Bite [Bryan Josh solo material]
Skin on Skin
Mother Nature
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Silver Glass
Questioning Eyes [Breathing Space cover]
Heroes Never Die

Sadly this night in Leamington was my last of my three Mostly Autumn concerts of 2017, but I am sure there will be more to come next year. Readers of this blog will no doubt be aware of how much of a fan I am of this band by now, and getting so many opportunities to see them live is a real treat. I am already looking forward to the next one, whenever that will be!

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