Review: Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo at the Hammersmith Apollo, London (27 November 2011)

There was a period in my life a long time ago in a galaxy far away when I regularly went to rock gigs in large venues but as time went by and my life unfolded, those nights of loud music and general carousing became fewer, eventually fading into the mists of history. This year has seen a resurgence in my going out, brought about entirely by hearing the music of Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo and wanting more. And Ive been pleasantly surprised to find that last nights gig brought back some happy memories of my long-forgotten gig-going days.

Ive now seen EBTRCH four times this year; each time the venue has been radically different and last nights show at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo (to give it its official title) was no exception. Formerly an art deco cinema, much of its original glory is now faded, overlaid with structural improvements and alterations over the years; but I guess that’s the price of maintaining a large venue whose boards have been trodden by a galaxy of stars, from Ella Fitzgerald to The Beatles, Elton John to Iron Maiden and, more recently a string of comedians in addition to the many heroes of generations of music fans.

Rounding off a solid year of touring in support of Almanac, the last week has seen Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo opening for Frank Turner The Sleeping Souls before joining FTTSS to contribute to a fistful of songs. This was a new context for me: the previous gigs Ive attended have all been EBTRCH headliners, which has given the band the opportunity to play Almanac pretty much in its entirety, as well as one or two older favourites, in settings which enabled the intricacy of the music to be savoured. How this would translate into a large hall where the audience were, to be blunt, really there only for the headliner, must have been a difficult question for Emily, Gill, Jo and Anna to to answer when the offer came in, but I certainly came away impressed at how well their move to a major venue turned out. And although a thirty-minute opening slot meant that last nights setlist contained only six songs, it would nevertheless have made an excellent introduction to anyone unfamiliar with the bands music.

A week on the road in the company of FTTSS, a band which has won the Association of Independent Musics 2011 Awards for Best Live Act and Hardest Working Artist, has energised EBTRCH: always musically adept and entirely at home in comparatively intimate venues, the band has thrown itself into the last weeks big gigs and not only looked comfortable in the 5000-seater Hammersmith Apollo, but were also clearly having an absolute ball onstage.

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

Opening with a punchy version of Ropes, the crowd were attentive and supportive and even a technical hitch with Gills guitar at the start of Calendar didn’t distract from the music, which took on an added clarity when heard through the huge PA system. As the opening chords of Pause the theme from BBC2s The Shadow Line pulsed quietly into life, I wondered momentarily about its inclusion: would it be too subtle, too low-key, for the crowd? But the dynamic range of this sad lament drew the audience in, and at its end there was an almost audible sigh, as if people had suddenly remembered to breathe.

The space created by the heart-rending harmonies of Pause was instantly filled as the man himself, Frank Turner, bounded on to the stage to share vocal duties with Emily on a roof-raising version of Fields of June. The way this song has developed has been quite stunning: from the slow, almost Kraftwerk-play-folk-music version on the bands first album Photos.Fires.Fables, it now sounds more like a mutant Central European polka with added blues harmonica and sounds none the worse for it! In many ways, this ongoing development of musical styles and themes epitomises the spirit of EB&TRCH; always receptive to new ideas and inspirations without ever falling into the trap of making changes simply for the sake of it.

Frank barely had time to leave the mic before Jo and Anna launched into a stomping version of Disappear (from the second album Despite The Snow) and from where I stood (pretty much dead centre of the stalls) it seemed pretty clear that the band had won the audience over. Now well into overdrive, we were treated to as good a version of Bones as Ive heard and before we knew it, that was the end of Emily Barker The Red Clay Halos set.

[Above – Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo (Anna Jenkins, Jo Silverston, Emily Barker, Gill Sandell) with Frank Turner]

At this point, I left the main hall to wander around handing out flyers spreading the word about the free digital download of Fields of June so my experience of the second band, Against Me! wasn’t perhaps as good as it might have been. My impressions were of a punk band a loud punk band! who were drawing on their musical roots to produce a thoroughly 21st century take on a much-loved theme, and certainly the crowd seemed to be into it.

I returned to the auditorium in time for the opening chords of Frank Turner The Sleeping Souls. I must admit that I’m a newcomer to the bands music and Wikipedia’s description of Frank as an English folk/punk singer-songwriter seems to me to be telling only one part of the story. The fact is that any musician who can have an entire audience singing along, word-perfect, from the first note to the last, is someone who definitely understands what makes a good song; who can turn just another gig on an apparently endless tour into an event which was quite obviously very special to a lot of people.

From the opening number, Eulogy (from the current album England Keep My Bones, the crowds enthusiasm was almost tangible and it was hard not to be carried along with it. As Frank introduced Wessex Boy, Emily, Gill, Jo and Anna joined the band onstage to add backing vocals, disappearing and reappearing at intervals in various combinations throughout Gill, Jo and Anna contributed additional instrumental backing to Nights Become Days and I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous (I think that’s what its called!); Anna played a searing violin solo in Sons Of Liberty and all four appeared for Peggy Sang The Blues, Glory Hallelujah and the second encore (was that Photosynthesis?). Having started on such a surge of energy, it was fascinating to see how the set ebbed and flowed, always building, and by the end of the encores the entire place was on its feet and would probably happily have stayed as long as the band were able and wiling to play.

And that was that, pretty much. I dived back into the entrance area to hand out the rest of the flyers and had a brief chat with Francis (smart, witty and infinitely patient tour manager for the eight-legged party animal known as Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo) before wending my way back to the badlands of W12. As far as I’m aware this was EBTRCHs last UK gig for the year and I’m glad I was able to be there; as ever, if you get the chance to see them play at any time in the future, you really should. For me, well, I know its a bit early for end-of-year reviews, but its no secret that Ive had one of the worst years of my life but the music of Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo has given me great comfort and hope during some of the darkest moments. More power to them and here’s hoping that this time next year Im reviewing their own headline gig at the Apollo!

Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo setlist:

Ropes
Calendar
Pause
Fields of June (featuring Frank Turner)
Disappear
Bones

Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo appeared on stage with Frank Turner The Sleeping Souls for these songs:

Wessex Boy
Nights Become Days
I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous [?]
Sons Of Liberty
Peggy Sang The Blues
Glory Hallelujah
Photosynthesis [? – second encore]

Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo’s music may be purchased/downloaded online from Bandcamp and iTunes.