Top of the bill were the enigmatic Rome, who play 'martial folk' music. I'm not especially good with these kinds of genre names - martial folk, as far as I can tell, essentially means mostly acoustic music that still carries a power, drive and discipline (thanks, live, to some brilliant percussion work) that would suit a march - particularly of the funeral variety. It's reductive, though, because if you were really expecting 'martial' music, you wouldn't necessarily expect the range, sensitivity and soul you can get from this band in particular. Not sure they play over here very often - really glad I got to see them and will look out for them again.
I was actually at the gig to see one of the supporting acts, Jo Quail. Regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) may recall that I'm a huge fan of Matt Howden, aka Sieben, who creates spellbinding music by looping only his violin and vocals. I'd seen Jo Quail's name in connection with Matt's work - they had shared stages before and in particular they played a recent gig together in Sheffield. Further investigation on YouTube and the like yielded remarkable results, so I ordered Jo's album, 'From the Sea'. The CD is a marvel, but witnessing a live performance brings home even more so the skill and flair involved in what she does.
Classically-trained, her weapon of choice is an electric cello - an extraordinary object in itself which barely moves (it's fixed firmly in place) but looks so arresting that it becomes the 'other character' on stage. Another devotee of looping, Jo builds each instrumental up layer by layer to include melody lines, and often percussive or atonal effects, to reach life-affirming levels of intensity and complexity. As a self-confessed 'how are they doing that?' geek, I would've been quite happy just to watch her play all night. My eyes were darting between her left and right hands, getting my head around the fact that she was controlling God knows how many streams of sound while picking the bass notes out at the same time. All the same - in the end, you kind of give up and give in to the gorgeous sound.
What can be more satisfying than to hear an act you really rate guide an audience (that for the most part is probably not their own) through that 'oh - hang ON' tipping point and into a smitten silence? Brilliantly, we got to hear some relatively meditative tracks from the current record but, in the mix, were two new songs from the next album which totally lifted the roof off (and no doubt sent the mortuary trolleys spinning out the back doors and down the stairs). 'Laurus' in particular - the track in the video I've embedded below - has a beat to rival any bit of techno or electronica (let's call it, er, "tech-llo" - yes, that'll catch on) and seeing just how she does it is enough to draw a 'Snakes alive!' from even the most reserved individual.
See her live if you possibly can. Yes, the music is great, but so is the performance. For a start, it's massively refreshing to see that at the moments of greatest intensity - when the artist seems to get truly lost in the music - Jo has a broad grin on her face. And while there are no vocals in the songs themselves, her chat to the audience between numbers is funny and engaging. About to tap the cello with a slightly odd-looking object (to achieve, no doubt, a particular kind of percussion sound), she told us, 'For those of you that don't know, this is my aunty Heather's hair-brush'. I'm now really pleased that, at future gigs, I will be one of the people who DO know. I will be able to look around me, nodding at bemused concert-goers, as if to say, 'Yep! It's aunty Heather's.'
The Jo Quail website is here - proceed! (I note with interest that Jo has her own logo and typeface. More of this sort of thing.) Check out the events page. Her next concert with Matt Howden (including a collaboration) is in Sheffield in early November. Then at the end of that month, she appears at St Leonard's in Shoreditch supporting Jarboe, along with Bitter Ruin, another band I've been raving about constantly in recent months. It's as if someone was trying to construct my dream bill. Hopefully see you there.
Now don't go before watching this: