As venues in London in which to see Carrie Tree and House of Hats, Clerkenwell’s Slaughtered Lamb is pretty top of the tree. The room in the basement is both a suitable size, bid enough to accommodate a reasonable crowd, but small enough and intimate enough that talking through performances isn’t an option, while it also boasts a sound that really does seem to do the best for whoever is playing. Regular soundman Joe knows his stuff and the venues basic sound kit, he’s even able to cope with Rowan’s somewhat eccentric, or perhaps that should just be unique percussion set up.
Carrie is playing in quartet mode and along with the bubbling percussion of Rowan Sterk are cellist, Asha McCarthy and mandolin player Fiddes Smith, who also deps with the Hats when they take their turn. Things don’t get the best possible start however as there are problems tuning the cello. The transfer from cold car to warm venue has rather thrown it out and Carrie appeals for a hush in the pre-performance chatter asking, “Have you ever tried tuning a cello to a noisy crowd?” Some wag quips, “No, but have you ever tried tuning a noisy crowd to a cello?” The ice is broken and as the laughter subsides a hush does descend, enough to bring the recalcitrant instrument to its working pitch.
From there on what follows is beautiful set of songs, which although they can’t possibly hope to match the intricate detail of the record, Carrie’s performance still brings them to life, well supported by the band as the magic flows. The tumbling riff of Thousand Days gets us under way. It’s one of two songs recorded in South Africa, but even shorn of the extra personal who feature on the record the song has a gentle throb, emphasised in part the rise and fall of Carrie’s voice. It’s the slow stretched vibrato, but also the way she drops away to a whisper.
All of the songs naturally enough come from Home To The Invisble. Introducing Perfectly Cast she describes it as, “The song that has been my saving grace in recent times, a reminder that no matter how bad things can seem at the time, there is always something good to grab hold of.” Better Next Time treats her muse as a lover, on occasions timid and coy and on others gushing, but Carrie promises love and care in return for the gift of song.
The tuning issue resurface a couple of times, but then as Carrie points out, “We are only taking our time because we care.” It seems so obvious that she does too. Her version of Glorybox is a smouldering and passionate affair that charges the air with positive ions, while Water Song is a sad and stark truth framed in a gorgeous melody, with Fiddes’ low harmony especially affecting. But then so too is the heartbeat that Rowan sets up on his big bass drum, a reminder that water gives us life.
Mama Kita is a joyful conclusion to a set that goes down a storm with the assembled, who in all credit have watched the performance with rapt attention. The applause is generous and shouts for more are met with regret for the Sunday curfew and the need to make way for House Of Hats.
As mentioned above this is a slightly expanded line up with Fiddes adding some banjo, mandolin and even a little percussion. He sits at the back with Roberto, the bassist and brother to Alex, while the latter is joined in the front rank by Noddy and James. It’s worth pointing out that Noddy is the female voice of the band. At some point the reason for that nickname has got to be revealed, but that’s for another day.
I am a sucker for harmony singing and the trio are all great voices in their own right. Perhaps it’s the fact that they all came through other bands and solo projects to finally combine their talents is the Hats core strength. Alex has a slightly smoky tone that reminds me a little of Cat Stevens, but the collective voice as they intertwine, with each finding their individual pitch, phrasing and space in the mix, is simply sublime.
Opening with Dylan’s One More Cup Of Coffee is shrewd in one way bold in another. Alex and Noddy emulate his Bobness and Emmylou with aplomb. It sounds so natural that if you didn’t know differently you might call their signature song. It’s certainly their signature sound, lush, brimming with melody and emotionally charged.
Senses tingle as they drop easily into their own material and the opening version of This Love, the title track of their album that both begins and closes the collection. Noddy switches to piano and with a few simple licks the sound is transformed again. The songs has a little hint of turbulence in what seems an open ended declaration of love with, “These flames I can’t control, issues I have not resolved.” It’s typical of the little details that you start to pick out the more you listen to these songs.
The set rattles along with minimal interruption, apart from James explaining the perils of drinking lager when on stage and the eventual need to burp that inevitably follows. Close To Me and Joanne are both belters, with Fiddes’ banjo adding an extra drive to the latter. But current favourite Gold, the first song that they wrote together, is probably my moment of the night, as the set slows marginally and the back and forth between Alex and Noddy builds the story.
It’s followed by the waltz No Man and surprisingly a new song, simply called Red, that positively boils with troubled imagery, paranoia and more. Paradoxically it’s a positive note to end on as there are clear signs of more to come form this band, so far we have but scratched the surface of their collected talents.
As the set finishes, the reason for the quick pace of the run through, with minimal chat, is suddenly apparent as the dreaded curfew comes into effect, with no time for an encore. Still an enthusiastic response greets the band as they finish, something which I feel sure will be readily repeated in nights to come.
They write literate and beautifully crafted songs that can quicken the pulse and stir the senses and with a bit of meaningful support from radio, House Of Hats really could be contenders. It’s not such a mad idea, is it?
Review by: Simon Holland