Review: Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo at Kings Place, London (6 May 2011)

On Friday, 6 May 2011, I had the pleasure of seeing Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo play at Kings Place in north London. The gig was the first in a series of events at the venue this Spring under the Folk Union banner, promising the opportunity to explore future traditions and contemporary songwriting with the leading lights of folk music.

It fell to Emily to curate this inaugural event, a task which she fulfilled more than adequately, having clearly taken the time and trouble to research the other artists in some depth, and to open the evening she introduced Cath Phil Tyler who performed an absorbing set which drew on American traditional music contextualised in a modern folk idiom. They have an obviously deep love and respect for the Appalachian music archived over decades during the last century by people like Anne and Frank Warner, Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, Ralph Peer and Alan Lomax. The results were enormously evocative of a music now perhaps largely lost to the mists of time, but which has as much emotional pull today as it ever did. And Caths witty and amusing between-songs chat deserves an archive of its own

After a short break, Emily returned to the stage with The Red Clay Halo (Anna, Jo and Gill). Despite this being only the bands second UK gig of a slightly less intensive itinerary than last time full details are at the EBTRCH site they sounded as confident and fluent as I remembered them from their set at St. Giles-in-the-Fields set back in February.

One of the many pleasures I derive from the music of EBTRCH is the constant innovation and development of it by the band. Although the core band lineup Emily Barker, Gill Sandell, Jo Silverston and Anna Jenkins (with Almanacs co-producer Ted Barnes again providing guitar, mandolin and thumb piano on several songs) and instrumentation (acoustic and electric guitars, accordion, flute, cello, banjo and violin) was the same, and much of the setlist was drawn from the current Almanac album (buy it here!), there were some obvious differences.

First, the venue. Kings Place, built in 2008 and, according to the website, a hub for music, art, dialogue and food, housed in an award-winning building in Kings Cross couldnt be further from the 18th century church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields in terms of visual ambience, but to say one is acoustically better or worse than the other would, I feel, entirely miss the point.

To my high-mileage and these days, slightly whistly ears, the most noticeable difference was that while the vocals sounded much more upfront at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, at Kings Place I was struck by how much to the fore Annas violin and Jos cello were. Of course, no matter the frequency range of any building, be it three years or three hundred years old, you only have to put any acoustic instrument or voice through a state of the art PA system and all bets are off.

The second difference that there were fewer musicians onstage this time relates to the sound of the band, and might just have had more than a little to do with my subjective perceptions of the acoustics, as Emily tactfully pointed out to me afterwards!

Finally, of course, theres the choice of songs. This time there were a couple less from Almanac, a couple more from Despite The Snow and one new number.

Despite these differences between the gigs, the band remained confident, assured and relaxed, starting the set with Billowing Sea, the opening track of Almanac and a great way to ease into the evening.

I mentioned earlier in this long and winding post that Emily was curating various artists at the event and throughout the set, a number of highly atmospheric films were projected onto a huge screen at the back of the stage. This visual art was the work of Patti Gaal-Holmes; the other artist featured in the nights Folk Union event. Pattis work has already featured in Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo videos Little Deaths is a fine example, and Emily herself has said that songs such as Storm in a Teacup and Despite the Snow were written to Pattis films.

Billowing Sea was followed by a handful of tracks from the album (Little Deaths, Ropes and Dancers), interrupted only briefly by a still ever-so-slightly jetlagged guitar deciding its tuning was fine-thank-you despite Emilys view that it most definitely wasnt, and the band was sounding every bit as fresh and musically tight as I remembered. Calendar was a particular joy for me to hear played by just the band without benefit of additional musicians; this was the version which had first captured my attention when I heard it on the Loose Ends radio broadcast and last night sounded every bit as punchy as it did the first time I heard it.

The heartbreaking harmonies of Pause currently receiving a fair bit of media attention in its remixed version as the theme for the BBC2s law-and-disorder drama The Shadow Line appeared midway through the set, to be followed in quick succession by the bands other tv crime thriller soundtrack song, Nostalgia (used in BBC1s Wallander series).

A shifting up of the pace brought two songs available only as digital downloads: Almanacs twelfth track Look Out For My Love with its live vocal fadeout making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, followed by the sparse but insistent Despite The Snow and with the elegaic Bones it was into two encores.

We were privileged to hear the first public performance of a new Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo song, The Rains. Its a measure of the musicianship of Emily, Gill, Anna and Jo that they could perform a new piece almost without batting an eyelid, making it sound as if it was something theyd been playing since the sessions for Almanac began. My already hazy memories (old age, as the saying goes, doesnt come alone!) are telling me that the vocal harmonies are some of the strongest and sweetest Ive heard from the band so far. And again, if I recall correctly the song structure is firmly in place and Id like to think that playing it out live over the course of the next three weeks will allow those hallmark EBTRCH instrumental licks and rifflets to grow and flourish. It would be really interesting to hear a recording of this live debut performance back-to-back with one from the last night of the tour, just to see how its evolved. But damn, Id so love to hear it again right now.

Unfortunately, a second hearing of The Rains wasnt on offer (*pouts, sulks*) and so bringing the night to a close, as it did at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, was the epic stomper and rebel-rouser Blackbird. By the time I got myself organised and wandered out of the auditorium, Emily, Gill, Jo and Anna were already chatting to people, signing autographs and so on; on a personal note I was chuffed to conkers that Emily not only remembered me but also remembered my name. Truly, musicians as talented, focused and approachable as Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo deserve all the success that will surely come their way and I have to say that it couldnt happen to a lovelier group of people. Not that Im biased or anything

where we go goodness well find

Setlist:

Billowing Sea
Little Deaths*
Ropes
Dancers*
Calendar*
Storm In A Teacup*
Pause
Nostalgia*
Disappear
Look Out For My Love*
Despite The Snow*
Bones
First encore: The Rains*
Second encore: Blackbird*

[* denotes video art by Patti Gaal-Holmes]