Last year I went to see Alec Ounsworth – frontman of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – perform a solo, unplugged set in someone’s living room in Portishead. It was the first time I had ever been to one of these ‘house concerts’, and it was a slightly odd but wonderful and at times thrilling experience, in which the intimacy of the situation was juxtaposed with the surreal displacement of sitting on a complete stranger’s carpet five feet away from one of my musical heroes.
But now house concerts seem to have become a bit of a thing. The ragged quintet comprised of fiddler Alastair Caplin, singer-songwriters Scott Cook, Nathan Ball and Jez Hellard and double bass maestro Nye Parsons have turned the domestic gig into something of an artform, to the extent that a large proportion of their shows are now performed in private homes.
Live On The Ley is one such performance. Recorded in Glastonbury in 2013, it is a document of five extremely talented musicians captured in a moment of intimate creative collaboration. First up is the fiddle-heavy, Alastair Caplin-led take on the traditional Nobody’s Fault But Mine, which combines sprightly musicianship with a darker vocal delivery to great effect.
Canadian Scott Cook’s songs carry an air of classic Americana: Song For A Pilgrim is a story of melancholic departures and hopeful journeys, with hushed backing vocals, acoustic guitar, yearning fiddle and mournful harmonica. It is the sort of the song that, perhaps paradoxically, thrives in an enclosed setting. Rustic alt-country is once again the order of the day on Cook’s gorgeous fingerpicked love song When We’re Back Around, which shows off a tragicomic lyricism worthy of Steve Earle and he displays a similar earthiness in the pensive meditation of New Grist.
The different composers display their own highly distinctive styles. Where for example Cook is interested in personal songs full of hard-won wisdom, Nathan Ball is more concerned with the political. In McDonalds For The Mind the righteous anger is tempered by Ball’s jazzy vocal phrasing, while Stand Up builds on percussive guitar and Footprints carries an ecological message which is saved from veering too close to over-earnestness by the dextrous acoustic patterning.
There are three strong covers dotted across the record: there is a version of Cam Neufeld’s Atlas Tango, with added dirty harmonica courtesy of Helllard, and Parsons’ languid double bass. Shoulda Known Better is a jaunty song by Konrad Wert, better known as the renowned one man band Possessed By Paul James. Perhaps the best of them though is Junebug Waltz, originally by Hurray For The Riffraff, with its starry-eyed lyrics and Caplin’s woozy swirl.
Some of the most effective pieces though are Caplin’s own compositions. Esplanada De Graca is a complex, deceptive fiddle piece, while The Craskie/Snow In March sees him delve into more traditional, Scottish-sounding territory. It is tunes like these – full of expressive familiarity – that are so well-suited to this form of concert. I only wish my living room were big enough to fit them all in.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Live on the Ley is Out Now
Order it via Bandcamp
Catch Jez Hellard & The Djukella Orchestra live at Priddy Folk Festival this weekend