Following The Face of Mount Molehill (2011), the trio’s most ambitious and critically successful record to date (read our album review here), Neil Cowley embarked on the first leg of the album’s tour with trepidation. For “six months,” he revealed, the Queen Elizabeth Hall performance had been weighing on his mind and with good cause.
Molehill saw the trio advance into unfamiliar territory. Cowley brought in new bassist Rex Horan and, for the first time, a dedicated string section. Horan, a shrewd addition, naturally complements the band’s live dynamic. His thunderous energy and appreciation of a riff, both rivalling Cowley’s own, were in full evidence on ‘Fable’. It was less clear, however, that the strings would translate onto stage without softening the trio’s trademark live punch. In fact, they were an overwhelming success. The strings formed, within the soundscape, a second plane which did not so much compete with the trio’s as fill the empty spaces around it. Providing delightful staccato accenting on ‘Rooster Was A Witness’, conjuring weirdly ethereal noises on ‘The Face of Mount Molehill’, and reinforcing melodies throughout, the strings were so effective that their departure for the middle section of the set left the trio sounding a little thin.
Alongside their new material, the trio made excursions into their growing back catalogue which demonstrated just how flexible and varied they have become. Their once infamous aversion to improvisation lived on in tightly arranged new tunes like Lament. But at other moments, like their spiky rendering of ‘Hug the Greyhound’, the trio were transported seamlessly back to the freer approach underlying Radio Silence (2010).
The performance signalled a remarkable growth in maturity. The trio now seem comfortable uniting the different approaches pursued in isolation on their four albums. Fittingly, then, it was a combination of tight arrangement, improvisation, and now a string section that produced the evening’s highpoint as violinist Julian Ferraretto took a writhing lead on ‘Slims’. The audience, like Cowley himself, seemed to recognise the watershed nature of the performance and rewarded it with a deserved standing ovation.
Review by: Matthew Ellis