Tonight’s show is a bit of a one off and early doors at 6.30pm. As it transpires there is a slight delay. Apparently they are clearing up after the sound check, which begs the question what exactly have they been doing in there, but then all will be revealed.
The gig is at St Leonards church in Spitalfields, the first time I’ve seen anything there and the church itself is large and on the cool side. Not the most pristine of settings, but the stage looks good, if curiously kitted out. There are tree branches turned to microphone stands, which have tins hanging in them. There are two at either side of the front where Inge Thompson and Becky Unthank will take their places and another at the back. My understanding is that the tins contain additions mics that seem to be hooked up to the old fashioned phonograph style speakers stood on wooden stands at the edges of the stage.
There are also three screens which will be used for lights and projections. Two seats, slightly raised in front of the screens, one for Martin Green, his accordion already in situ, the other for Niklas Roswall whose nychelharpa is also visible, pretty much complete the the stage set. That said, the programme promises that the opener Crows’ Bones features an instrument that the cast refer to as ‘the log.’ That too is visible at the left front of the stage and you can see it deserves its name.
The venue fills up surprisingly quickly with some people seated up on the balcony. Thankfully my guest ticket has me in four rows from the front, as the seats are allocated by ticket number, so all is set fair, but despite my advantageous aisle seat we are well stuffed into the pew. It’s part of what to seems to be an adventurous programme of events for the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, which includes everything from The Hilliard Ensemble and the Sixteen through to avant-garde Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus.
[pullquote]the programme says, “This project has allowed us to focus on the human desire to sing songs about sinister supernatural beings.”[/pullquote]The show has been commissioned by Opera North and as the programme says, “This project has allowed us to focus on the human desire to sing songs about sinister supernatural beings.” Promising a mix of traditional and modern material it also cautions, “The songs are not related and although we feel that they share a common theme, there is no direct narrative to this show.” It’s in keeping with the telling of ghost stories around this time of year and here performed as part of the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival.
‘The log,’ it turns out is strung and Inge plays it with a bow, but quite aggressively and its odd groaning sound starts the show. Becky and Inge’s voices sound particularly spectral and the tin cans, when used add a really odd effect of voices coming across from another world. The lighting adds to the effect, with blue lights and the screens used to diffuse white lights, in particular creating a spooky atmosphere. In fact the lighting has been designed by Ben Everett and certainly warrants a special mention.
[pullquote]Martin is adding additional sound manipulation and seems to be scratching 78s on an old fashioned phonograph[/pullquote]Martin is on typically splendid form, getting sounds from his accordion that few others are capable of imagining let alone doing. The blend with the nychelharpa is a good one too, but in addition Martin is adding additional sound manipulation and seems to be scratching 78s on an old fashioned phonograph. Then of course there are the toy pianos, musical boxes and other sundry devices used to build a most uncommon musical setting for what are unquestionably spine chilling tales.
The traditional songs include The Three Ravens and Banks Of Red Roses. The former has the carrion crows trying to work out how to get past the loyal hawk and hound who refuse to leave the side of a fallen knight. The latter is one of those cautionary tales that sought to advise young ladies of the perils of sport and play. Mind you if the consequences had always been as the songs suggest there would be far fewer people in the world today. There’s also the Lyke Wake Dirge, which advises on the consequences of not sharing your meat and drink – it’s not good apparently.
More modern songs come in The Griesly Bride an adaptation of a poem by the Australian John Manifold, I Saw The Dead by Villagers, which is certainly one of Connor O’Briens more unsettling, troubled songs and the very strange Tulip by Jesca Hoop. Becky and Inge make the most of inherent darkness in the material, both are wonderful and distinctive singers in their own right, but complement each other really well here, even when singing into tin cans.
The whole thing works almost seamlessly, although in the middle of the set two of the screens are repositioned and used to project a very odd shot film. Directed by Ruth Paxton and filmed by David Liddell, it compliments the murderous madness of Bald Jeanie, a song written by Inge.
[pullquote]One can’t help but wonder whether the residents of the crypt have been stirred from their slumbers.[/pullquote]It’s perhaps the repositioning of the screens that prompted the slight delay in getting in, but as the band take their bows, such minor inconvenience is mostly forgotten in the rousing reception. Still I must say a ghostly chill has refused to shift from the church and even the warmth of the crowds appreciation can’t shift it. One can’t help but wonder whether the residents of the crypt have been stirred from their slumbers.
It’s been a great night of music with the simple but effective staging adding spectacularly to the atmosphere. Those lucky enough to attend had the chance to purchase a CD, but luckily it will get a full releases in the early part of next year and we’ll doubtless bring you more on that when it does.
Review by: Simon Holland
Mixed by Portishead’s Adrian Utley and produced by Martin Green the Crows’ Bones album will be released in 2014