The Bedford in Balham is possibly one of the London gig circuits best kept secrets, its south of the river location probably keeps it off many people’s radar. Still the choice of a surprising number of weighty artists to showcase new material to an invite-only-crowd at the Bedford reflects the quality of the room. Tonight may not be invite only, but as Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo take the stage, the songstress immediately makes it clear that new material is exactly what we are to expect, before launching into the title track of the forthcoming record Dear River. This, it transpires, is one of three special London shows on consecutive nights for the express purpose of airing the new songs.
Immediately striking is that the band is now a five piece, with the addition of drummer Nat Butler. Also, Emily has a cherry red Gretsch electric guitar strapped on and Jo SIlverston isn’t sat with cello, but standing with an equally vibrant Fender bass. It signals a change in style and there’s much more of a driving Americana feel to the opener, in contrast to the more chamber-pastoral English feel of the last album Almanac. But as Emily will say later, “Repeating yourself gets boring.”
There’s little chance of boredom slipping in tonight and the second number sees Emily strap on a harmonica and acoustic guitar, in the first of a regular ringing of the changes. There’s an almost Neil Young like lilt to Ghost Narrative, but the harmonies from the Red Clay Halo and violin and accordion of Anna Jenkins and Gill Sandell respectively give this a trademark stamp. It’s only unfamiliarity with the song that sends you looking for comparisons.
Letters is announced as a love Story inspired by Emily’s Dutch grandfather who spent three years of WW2 in exile. It’s Emily at her tender, aching best and her voice caresses the melody into one of several spine tingling highlights of the evening’s show. The following Tuesday by contrast picks up the pace and amps up the sound with an almost Mumford like robustness. The girls and Nat can clearly rock out when they want to.
And they do for much of the new material. Everywhen has the drive of a Gypsy violin, reminiscent of Desire era Dylan, while Fields Of June is a duet with Dom Coyote that is another triumph. The song originally appeared on Photos, Fires & Fables and has seen Emily duet with several different male voices down the years. Dom has sung with Emily before on The Witch Of Pittenweem from Almanac and clearly revels in the experience, throwing himself whole-heartedly into tonight’s performance. Disappear from Despite The Snow and the brand new The Blackwood both have a drive and energy that hints at Appalachia or the revival style of Gillian Welch.
Tucked in between the excitement of these rock ‘n’ rollers, however, the tender side of Emily and band brings a lightness of touch that paradoxically can be equally electrifying. Ropes, Pause and Calendar bring the more familiar beauty of Almanac to the evening, stirring the very soul, but new song, Sleeping Horses proves equally capable of creating that frisson.
A Spadeful Of Ground, deserves special mention for tackling the ongoing plight of the Aboriginal Australians much as Bones from Almanac also does. It’s a subject that Emily clearly cares passionately about and she has the gift to turn that passion into moving and resonant songs, weighty yet not weighed down by the seriousness of the subject.
With an encore of Little Deaths, taken solo acoustic and then the much feted Nostalgia. The latter being the first of her two TV ‘hits’ is, as always, a bittersweet moment, laced with the pain of longing, but carrying the grace of a gorgeous tune.
The evening seems to fly by and leaves a sense that Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo have moved the game on yet again. That seems to be in Emily’s nature and with such capable and versatile musical comrades, why not? So, if you find yourself clutching at a pick and mix of classic sounds and influences from the 60s to the current day, reference points that sometimes shift within the course of a song – Neil Young, Scarlet Rivera’s violin for Dylan’s Desire, Christine Perfect/McVie, Gillian Welch, etc – it’s tempting to believe it’s simply because you’re hearing new classics destined to be likewise revered in years to come.
The patronage of Linn Records and the time spent in Scotland recording have had their obvious, positive effect. It’s like the band have once again grown in stature and tonight offers a tantalising taste of what the new record has in store, but more of that at a later date.
Review by: Simon Holland