The announcement of Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo’s November UK tour was tinged with a note of sadness: as Emily said on her Facebook post, it was to be their last together for a little while. It’s a brave move but, in music as in life, we all have to follow our hearts, to do what feels right and good and this is perhaps particularly true for creative people, if they are to continue to nurture and develop their chosen form of artistic endeavour and expression.
Emily Barker, Gill Sandell, Anna Jenkins and Jo Silverston [both – www.hummingbirdquartet.com] have achieved a huge amount during their nine years together: they’ve toured almost incessantly in the UK, Europe and America, taking in a huge range of venues, from intimate house gigs to enormodrome arenas and outdoor festivals, small pubs to historic churches and modern arts centres; they appeared at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony; collected a BAFTA award for ‘Nostalgia’ (the theme to BBC TV’s Wallander law-and-disorder television drama and an Ivor Novello award for ‘Pause’ (their second crime thriller theme, this time for BBC2’s The Shadow Line) and still found time to record four studio albums and a plethora of singles and EPs, as well as occasionally pursue their own side projects and solo work. Frankly, it makes me feel tired just to look at that CV and I hope they’re able to take at least a little time out for some R&R during the forthcoming hiatus.
However, back in the here and now, the opportunity to hear one of my favourite groups on their last hurrah was not to be missed and so it was that I made my way to the beautiful St James’s Church in Piccadilly for the band’s ninth gig on their short but intensive 12-date tour. They’ve been supported throughout by Christian Kjellvander, the Swedish singer/songwriter whose song ‘Transatlantic‘ was one of the highlights of the recent Vena Portae album, recorded by the band of the same name which was a side project of Emily’s back in the winter of 2012. Christian opened the evening with a set showcasing his uniquely Scandinavian take on Americana; replete with heavily treated guitar and vocals, his music evoked images of the stillness of winter sunsets beneath big skies and the crackle of auroral static across the airwaves. He was joined onstage by Emily for ‘The Valley‘, then by Anna, Jo and Gill for his last song, ‘The Mariner‘.
After a short intermission, Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo took to the stage and proceeded to play what was one of the best sets I’ve heard them play in the nearly four years I’ve known them. All four were in fine form musically, playing material from across their discography and generally looked to be having a great time. Much of the setlist for this tour has been selected by fans and the result, far from being a going-through-the-motions, “greatest hits” type of package, was a perfect distillation of the essence of the band’s music which reminded you with each and every song just how good this band is and what they’ve achieved together.
Opening with a ferocious take on ‘Dear River‘ with Jo’s confident and punchy electric bass to the fore, followed by no less powerful versions of ‘Ropes‘, ‘Tuesday‘ and ‘Nostalgia‘ the band were obviously taking no prisoners, much to the audience’s evident approval. A cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than The Rest‘ was taken at a stately pace; radically repurposed for EB&TRCH’s own particular sound, we were treated to a perfectly placed violin solo from Anna while the drop (as I believe The Kids say) at the bridge, to just Emily’s voice and Jo’s cello was just stunning.
Gill regaled us with the latest instalment from her secret life as a cheese enthusiast before taking to the keyboard to lead an inspired cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Day After Tomorrow‘, another unexpected choice which made complete sense when you heard it. The ballad ‘Letters‘ offered a moment of introspection, with the band’s trademark vocal harmonies soaring over Gill’s plaintive flute and Emily’s percussive guitar.
A sinewy rearrangement of ‘Jig > Storm In A Teacup‘ followed, one of my personal favourites (among many!) from the band’s back catalogue. Comparing the original studio recording to its current live form reminds me of one of the band’s true strengths as a live act: their ability to take familiar songs from their repertoire and rework them in completely new ways without losing the emotive power of the previous versions. The opening jig section, swathed in Anna and Jo’s strings and underpinned by Emily’s acoustic guitar before being joined by Gill’s accordion, displayed a polyrhythmic side of the band, clearly influenced (but never overwhelmed) by traditional Celtic airs and jigs. The slide into ‘Storm In A Teacup‘ was seamless and a real reminder of the strength of not only the musicianship of the four, but also of the strength and depth of the songwriting. (My thanks to Emily, Jo, Anna and Gill for playing this one).
For ‘Witch Of Pittenweem’ Christian joined the girls onstage to reprise the vocal duet of the recorded version, his deep voice adding to the atmosphere of foreboding captured so well in Emily’s lyric which retells the eighteenth century trial of Janet Cornfoot, accused as a witch, tortured and finally murdered by a mob in the Scottish fishing village of Pittenweem. It was followed by ‘Ghost Narrative‘, a restrained but persistent foot-tapper with its poetic yet perceptive plea for unity and healing.
Announcing their “second light-hearted murder ballad of the night”, Emily introduced guest singer Robbie Boyd who reprised the male vocal part of a rabble-rousing version of the cheerfully unhinged central European polka with added blues harmonica that is ‘Fields Of June‘. The onstage interaction between Anna, Jo and Gill during ‘Fields Of June‘ has become increasingly amusing to watch over the years; it’s always good to see musicians who are clearly enjoying themselves, a thought made all the more bittersweet when one remembers that this was to be one of the last times we’re likely to see EB&TRCH perform this song. Nevertheless, the band had clearly found their mark by now and were in overdrive for ‘Disappear‘; the contrast between the heartbroken lyrics and Jo and Anna’s passionate string arrangements creating a tension that drove the song every bit as much as the primeval wail of Emily’s bluesy harmonica.
‘Calendar‘ was the first EB&TRCH song I ever heard and as such will always have a special place in my affections. I still can’t hear it without being reminded of that first hearing on a cold, dreary winter’s night nearly four years ago when it burst from my radio, sat me down and told me a tale of how humanity’s salvation from an impending environmental disaster lies entirely in our own hands. In keeping with the band’s custom of reinventing its music, it’s come a long way while, paradoxically, remaining close to its original form, with Emily leaving the stage to conduct the audience in a suitably good-natured singalong section at the end.
The main set drew to its end with ‘The Blackwood‘, Emily’s a capella rendition of the first verse has never failed to capture the audience’s attention every time I’ve heard it and this occasion was no exception. After a short break in which the audience’s applause must have been audible to the statue of Eros in nearby Piccadilly Circus, we were treated to three encores. The lush four-part harmonies of ‘Pause‘ created a sonic space for reflection and, as ever, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was followed by a rip-roaring ‘Blackbird‘ which, like ‘Jig > Storm In A Teacup‘ has evolved from its original, low key incarnation into a real stomper, nicely paving the way for ‘Oh Journey‘ with its especially pertinent lyric about the life changes we must all navigate, moving ever forwards while building on our pasts.
“So move us through this day
And move us through tomorrow
And yesterday can be but
A shadow, a shadow, a shadow”
And that, as they say, was that. For one more time, one last time, Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo demonstrated yet again why they are so far ahead of their peers in the field of contemporary folk music. Emily’s lyrics are well-observed and poetic without being impenetrable and the band’s arrangements possess a timbral depth and range that’s never less than compelling. But what really elevates the music above that of so many of their peers is its underpinning by the simple humanity of the relationships between the musicians – and between the musicians and their audience.
To end on a personal note, whatever my own sense of disappointment at Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo’s decision to call it a day, I respect that decision absolutely and will continue to support Emily, Gill, Jo and Anna in whatever way I can, as first class musicians and, I’m blessed to be able to say, as friends. You and your music have brought many wonderful things into my life and sustained me through good times and bad. You galvanised me into taking my writing more seriously than merely talking to myself on my small personal blog and finding new audiences to share my love of music with. Perhaps most importantly of all, it’s the many new friendships I’ve made as a result of your music coming into my life, and for that, I am profoundly grateful. Thank you again, Emily, Jo, Anna, Gill; I wish you every success with all your future ventures and look forward to catching up with you all again soon.
May the road rise up to meet you.
Review by: Helen Gregory
venue / date: St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London, 19 November 2014
Song of the Day
Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo – Look Out For My Love (Neil Young cover)
Photo Credit: © 2014 by J. Halliday