Here on Folk Radio we’ve been thoroughly impressed by Urban Folk Quartet’s new release, The Escape, making it one of our Featured Albums of the Month, and Simon’s review gave it a most enthusiastic thumbs up (read it here). UFQ have built their reputation as an outstanding live band, so their Hangar Arts gig seemed a heaven sent opportunity to round out our coverage by catching them on tour, showcasing the new album.
When I’d spoken to them at Towersey Festival last year, they’d been eager to talk about their intention to record what they described as a ‘proper’ studio album, with the prospect of using overdubs and other studio techniques. So, chatting with them before the gig, had they, I wondered, found they’d set any traps for themselves when it came to live performance of the ‘Escape’ material? Well, they’d leave me to make up my own mind once I’d heard the gig, but they’d kept this very much in mind during the recording sessions. So, tonight, Joe Broughton wouldn’t be adding a bass line and his and Paloma Trigas’s fiddles would be the entirety of the string section, but, I hear the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down here, would that really make a difference?
What had been occupying them in rehearsal was fitting the new material in with some of their well-established audience pleasers to create a coherent show. And then ensuring that their patter between the music was polished enough to entertain and long enough to cover their instrument swap overs.
The gig begins exactly as the album does, with Dan Walsh’s voice ringing out the first lines of Boat up the River accompanied by just his banjo. So, immediately, the focus is on the new elements that Dan brought to the band when he replaced Frank Moon earlier last year. Dan appears to be thriving on his involvement with UFQ and as Tom Chapman, Joe and Paloma join in the arrangement, the band’s familiar stage character is quickly established, lots of eye contact, smiles from ear to ear and plenty of movement, especially from Dan who does like to jump. They really should consider getting him his own riser to he can stay airborne for longer.
Next up is a set of tunes that has been a staple of the band’s repertoire all the way back to their first album. The Stoney Steps Set, two trad tunes followed by one of Joe’s, is guaranteed to make established UFQ fans feel they’re on familiar ground and probably has a similar effect on the band. The set list then focusses on material from The Escape for the remainder of the first half, including The Beginning of the End, one of Joe’s more adventurous, Eastern European inspired pieces with an 11/8 time signature just to keep everyone on their toes and introducing us to a hitherto overlooked sub-genre, Bulgarian banjo.
There is one exception to this run of tracks from The Escape. No UFQ gig is complete without a percussive interlude. Tom is renowned for the variety of instruments he manages to hit during a performance, he may not be sat behind a full drum kit but both arms and both legs are fully occupied. At least once in a UFQ set, though, he gets help with the rest of the band joining him. Percussion takes to the fore, and sometimes to the audience. Note to self: If you’ve just been chatting to the band, and then sit in the front row, you deserve all you get.
Tom isn’t only the rhythm section for UFQ, he composes. His main contribution to The Escape is The Language Barrier, notable for being the only track this evening on which he doesn’t play. It’s that rarity amongst UFQ’s music, a slow, lyrical piece featuring fiddle and guitar. For once, a clear difference from the recorded version is detectable. In the studio, mandolin and banjo could be added but a reduced arrangement only serves to highlight the beauty of the core melody. Tom also provides backing vocals and takes the occasional lead vocal such as on The Snows They Melt The Soonest. That song makes an appearance early in the second half, just after the opening tune set, Barnstorming paired with The Breakthrough, two very lively pieces from Joe that set the half off in rip-roaring fashion.
After The Snows comes one of Joe’s more challenging instrument changes, from fiddle to guitar with no in between chat to cover it. Will he make it in time for the opening notes of The On On? No, yes, no the guitar’s in place but no sound, quick re-plugging of the lead and off we go. Genuine hiccup or a bit of business? You can never really be sure with UFQ, their performances have these little touches of theatre that seem spontaneous but …
The On On set finishes after some fairly frenetic percussion from Tom and while he gets his breath back, Paloma introduces her lead vocal for the evening, her Latin American inspired composition, Resiste, in Spanish, naturally. Attempting to teach the chorus to the audience provides another touch of comedy that everyone dutifully plays along with, knowing full well we won’t stand a chance at full speed.
That song completes the set of ten pieces from The Escape and for the remainder of the evening we’re treated to a classic UFQ high energy crescendo to the gig. That has to mean dancing in the aisles and the band is well aware that digging into the back catalogue is the way to go. So the finale kicks off with a pacey four tune set, All But the Hours, moving on to Super Off Beat Return, a tune that again takes us right back to the band’s earliest days and with the equally ancient Cajun Beancurd for an encore it’s job done, the audience are on their feet, clapping, cheering and smiles on everyone’s faces. The Escape as an album already comes highly recommended and as the centre piece of a live gig it proved to be irresistible. UFQ have done it again, ensuring their live shows continue to provide top notch entertainment that really has to be experienced.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Five Hundred Miles
Upward Spiral / Brink
The Escape is out May 1st 2015 via SAE
Order it Now Via: The UFQ Shop
15 May – The Forge, Camden, London NW1 7NL
16 May – Maldon Town Hall, Maldon CM9 4PZ
17 May – Dart Music Festival, Dartmouth
21 May – Alexander’s, Chester CH1 2JW
23 May – Fishguard Folk Festival, Fishguard SA65 9AD
29 May – Village Hall, Bowerchalke, Wiltshire
30 May – Village Hall, Kington Langley, Wiltshire SN15 5NJ
02 Jun – Swaledale Festival, Hawes DL8 3RN
05 Jun – Gate To Southwell Festival, Nottinghamshire, NG25 0PT
06 Jun – Gate To Southwell Festival, Nottinghamshire, NG25 0PT
07 Jun – Wirral Folk Festival, Ellesmere Port CH65 6QF
18 Jul – Sesiwn Fawr Dolgellau Festival, Dolgellau, North Wales
23 Jul – Loon Plage, France
19 Aug – Festival, Belgium
22 Aug – Folk East Festival, Glemham Hall, Suffolk