Review: Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo at the Half Moon, Putney (27 March 2012)

This was the last night of a short but intensive UK tour before Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo head off on their first European tour supporting Frank Turner The Sleeping Souls, returning in a couple of weeks for a sold-out show at the Wembley Arena (again with FTTSS). In addition, the process of recording their fourth album (which began last year gathers momentum: recording will begin in earnest in the summer although the writing and demoing process is already under way.

Almost single-handedly redefining the term work ethic, Emily, Anna, Gill and Jo had spent most of the day recording a video to promote their reworking of Fields of June featuring Frank Turner (available as a free digital download here). They certainly picked a good day for it; with the weather feeling more like June than March, its to be hoped that this is a good omen of a sunny future.

Yet despite this punishing schedule, from the opening notes of This Is How Its Meant To Be to the closing chords of Fields of June, 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.

The lyrics are well-observed and poetic without being impenetrable and the 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. Clearly enjoying each others company as well as the music, Emily, Anna, Gill and Jo seem happy and relaxed onstage, swapping between-songs witticisms (and terrible, terrible jokes!) with the audience.

[Above – Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo [L-R]: Jo Silverston, Emily Barker, Gill Sandell]

Undoubtedly the intensive touring schedule has played its part in establishing a bond between the four which pays dividends in terms of confidence and self-assurance in the music they make and allows them to support each other through the (admittedly rare) moments when technical hitches with the sound system would reduce many others to a cacaphony of sausages-for-fingers bum notes and generally falling apart. To their credit, EBTRCH took the one or two minor mid-set problems in their stride, with a winning combination of grace and good humour.

As for the music itself, a good half of the setlist was from the current album, Almanac, with three of the remaining numbers from the first CD, Photos.Fires.Fables. and two from 2008s Despite The Snow set. The comparatively small size of the venue meant that a lot of the musics detail came through in ways that Id not heard before. Overall, my impression was that touring the songs has enabled them to be restructured in ways which will enhance their appeal to a wider audience while retaining the depth and subtlety which makes them so unique.

In keeping with this ongoing development of the music, we were treated to two new pieces during the evening. Although it received its public premiere at Kings Place last May, The Rains written to accompany a super-8 short film by Patti Gaal-Holmes has now been recorded, hopefully for inclusion on the new album, and has all the hallmarks that one might expect from EBTRCHs music.

The other new number well, new to me, anyway! was something of a break from tradition, in that it was instrumental, but perfectly illustrates EBTRCHs openness to revisiting their back catalogue by segueing into a sinewy rearrangement of Storm In A Teacup (from Despite The Snow). Swathed in Anna and Jo’s strings at the start and underpinned by Emily’s guitar before being joined by Gills accordion, it displayed a poly-rhythmic side of the band, clearly influenced (but never overwhelmed) by traditional Celtic airs and jigs. The slide into the rearranged Storm In A Teacup was seamless, with Gills percussion emphasising the anguished howl of the lyrics. A real reminder of the strength of not only the musicianship of the four, but also of the strength and depth of the songwriting. A definite highpoint of the set for me, and I hope EBTRCH will record it for the new album.

[Above – Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo [L-R]: Anna Jenkins, Jo Silverston]

From there on, the band were in overdrive with storming versions of Blackbird and Disappear if it wasn’t for the requirement that London audiences remain cool at all costs, Id have been mum-dancing like a good un! The placing of Pause was perfect; a moment of reflection and a chance to catch ones breath, before we were into a very tight version of Calendar and then it was over. Well, apart from the two encores; The Rains bringing us right up to date and finally closing with Emily singing both main vocal parts on Fields of June.

I stayed behind afterwards for a few minutes to wish Emily, Anna, Gill and Jo all the best for their forthcoming European dates and all too soon found myself trekking back to my shoebox of a flat, warming myself against the chill night air with happy memories of another wonderful evenings music from four talented and lovely musicians who deserve all the success so surely due to them and who, over the course of the past year, have become good friends. Looking forward to some serious frockn’roll at Wembley!

Edited to add: It occurs to me that I haven’t mentioned the opening act, Jenny Lindfors. Hailing from Dublin but currently resident in London, her quiet and reflective music combined a delicate guitar fingerpicking with a voice that can move from a whisper to a full-throated power. Shes recording her difficult second album at the moment her set comprised tunes from it (with the one exception of I Don’t Really Want You Here from her 2008 debut) and its already on my wish-list. Recommended!

Setlist:

This Is How Its Meant To Be
Dancers
Ropes
Openings
Reckless
Billowing Sea
Nostalgia
Jig > Storm In A Teacup
Blackbird
Disappear
Pause
Calendar
First encore: The Rains
Second encore: Fields of June