Review: Gill Sandell/Adrian Crowley at Kings Place, London (27 April 2012)

One good thing about music:
When it hits, you feel no pain
[Bob Marley, “Trench Town Rock”]

There can be no denying that the healing power of music is one of its best aspects. But its not the only one: the ability to connect people emotionally, at a visceral level and the communication of ideas, the sharing of feelings between like-minded people, these are other sides of the coin. Music doesnt always have to be militant, in-your-face rebel rousing. Sometimes, in a loud conversation, its the quieter voices that are heard most clearly.

On Friday (27 April, 2012) at Kings Place I was fortunate enough to hear two of those quieter voices Gill Sandell and Adrian Crowley each of whose music differs from the others almost as much as they differ from Bob Marleys and yet each is equally capable of capturing the attention of an audience as any internationally known musician performing in a giant stadium.

Its nearly a year since I last visited Kings Place on that occasion it was to see Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo inaugurate the now-established Folk Union sessions and I must admit to a moment of surprise at how quickly the time had passed since my own dark days of last summer. Anyway. That was then and this is now. It may be worth mentioning in passing (although Im sure Ive said it before) that the music of Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo has given me much strength and happiness in the last year or so and my friendship with Em, Jo, Anna and Gill has also introduced me to music which might otherwise have passed me by. Gills solo album Tarry Awhile is one such collection. A dozen songs of love and loss, light and shade, a bittersweet and very personal perspective on the human condition.

So it was a pleasure for me to hear some of my favourites from that album played live by Gill on acoustic guitar and vocals (with a couple of forays to the venues grand piano). Additional instrumentation was provided by Sarah Willson (cello and harmony vocals) and the redoubtable Ted Barnes, a musicians musician if ever there was, on acoustic and electric guitars (and a good helping of dry wit in between-songs chat with Gill).

Opening with a new song, The Border, and moving into Seventeen Days (the B-side of last years limited edition 7 vinyl single release of Fingers And Toes), the Gill Sandell Trio, as Gill wryly referred to them, played with a confidence and concentration that drew me in as surely as the proverbial moth to a flame.

Fingers And Toes and Wrap Your Treasure, perhaps the most obvious choices for singles, sat well in the setlist, setting the scene for the more introspective Once Were Bells and The Message in which Gills songwriting ability was very much to the fore, her clear and strong voice confidently and unwaveringly delivering the lyrically intertwined tales of the fictional Lily Lyle.

[Above [L-R]: Sarah Willson, Gill Sandell, Ted Barnes]

By now we were a good three-quarters of the way through the set and, as so often happens to me these days when I hear compelling music, the time had seemed to pass simultaneously both in an instant and incredibly slowly. Theres A Low Sun followed, its spaciousness allowing Sarahs cello to shine through and before we knew it, Gill was announcing the last song of her set, Will I Lose My Love? the opening track from Tarry Awhile.

Hearing Gill play this comparatively rare solo set was in any event a real treat for me, but coming at the end of a stressful week, gave me a welcome opportunity to put my own worries aside and lose myself in a set which, in hindsight, was like seeing for the first time in real life a collection of delicately engraved cameos which Id only seen before in photos. Ive remarked in other reviews on the ability of Emily Barker The Red Clay Halo to constantly reappraise and restructure their own back catalogue in a way that makes each performance unique and its fair to say that this is a talent which Gill, too, possesses. The recorded versions of her songs take on a new life when performed in front of an audience, bringing out fresh nuances and timbres through their rearrangement for the stage, keeping listeners and performers alike engrossed from start to finish.

After a short interval, Adrian Crowley appeared onstage and, after a moment or two prodding at a laptop computer and a quick tapdance over his guitar effects pedalboard, opened his set with The Beekeepers Wife from his most recent album, Season of the Sparks.

At this point, I should probably confess to being less familiar with Adrians music than I am with Gills, despite having bought Season of the Sparks on its release in 2009 long before I found myself on the scrapheap of the unemployed where the luxury of impulse purchases is simply no longer an option. And although its not an album Id played a great deal, nevertheless I dusted it down and put it on my MP3 player at the time I bought my ticket for the show and had found myself far more receptive to its subtleties on my wanderings around town in the preceding days than I had in the intervening years.

Adrian has a very distinctive fingerpicking style on the guitar; on Friday the output from his Gretsch semi-acoustic guitar was fed through a range of effects to produce a sound which was really quite unique. Lots of short delay gave the impression of multiple instruments, from guitars to harmoniums to mandolins and back again, and a huge reverb sound to help create a sense of space in which the music sounded both distant yet detailed. The contrast with his largely untreated vocals resulted in an intimate and very human sound, allowing the highly personal lyrics to take their rightful place at the centre of the music.

New songs made up about half of the setlist with the remainder drawn from Season of the Sparks; the two encores coming from 2008s Long Distance Swimmer. But there is a freshness and continuity in both his sound and his songwriting which allowed the wide-ranging selection to merge almost seamlessly, giving the impression that the songs could just as easily have been written that same day as four years ago.

Of the new material, at least three songs followed the opener, each of which offered a tantalising glimpse into what may lie ahead on the next album. Starlight Hotel and Never One For Goodbyes (I think thats what its called) reminded us of Adrians strengths as a songwriter while Alice Among The Pines suggested new directions and hidden depths.

Swedish Room and Summer Haze Parade paved the way into From Champion Avenue To Misery Hill the final new song of the night, prefaced by Adrians drily amusing story of its inspiration. It appears on the pre-show podcast (see below) and Ive found myself listening to it several times since.

[Above: Adrian Crowley]

The main body of Adrians set concluded with a cover of Squeeze Bees by the wonderful (and sadly-missed) Ivor Cutler. Its one of several highlights of the album and if anything, the understated eroticism of the lyrics seemed much more overt in the comparatively stripped-down live rendition.

From there we endured the artifice of staged encores. Apologies for my note of irritation, but I find that particular construct as annoying as I ever have. I struggle to see the point: we (the audience) have come specifically to see the musicians who, one hopes, have come specifically to play for their audience so why (and by whom) its deemed necessary to pretend the shows over, bring up the house lights and even start up the post-gig PA music, only to reverse the process two minutes later mystifies me. This was made more irksome here as Adrians stage presence suggests a man without a huge and fragile ego in need of stroking to enable him to play just a little longer. To be honest, the interruption of the ebb and flow of his set was, for me, distracting and counterproductive.

However, setting aside my personal antipathy to such gauche, showbizzy tactics, it has to be said that the final two songs (Long Distance Swimmer and the glorious Bless Our Tiny Hearts) were every bit as enjoyable as the rest of the evening and when the house lights finally did come back up and stayed up, I was glad Id come.

The music of Adrian Crowley is actually quite difficult to stick a label on. Yes, there are clear folk roots, new and old, but the juxtaposition of the heavily-treated guitar with straight-from-the-heart lyrics and an unassuming stage presence produce something which is far greater than the sum of its parts. These are songs which sound more like fragments of lucid dreams, that conjure up images of antique lace and faded photographs, distant music in empty rooms This is some of the most atmospheric and haunting music Ive heard in quite a while and, all in all, the evening will stick in my mind for a long time to come.

Gill Sandell setlist:

The Border
Seventeen Days
Fingers And Toes
Wrap Your Treasure
Once Were Bells
The Message
Theres A Low Sun
Will I Lose My Love?

Adrian Crowley setlist:

The Beekeepers Wife
Starlight Hotel
Alice Among The Pines
Never One For Goodbyes
Swedish Room
Summer Haze Parade
From Champion Avenue To Misery Hill
Squeeze Bees
First encore: Long Distance Swimmer
Second encore: Bless Our Tiny Hearts

Gill Sandells music may be purchased/downloaded online via her website and from Bandcamp and iTunes.

Adrian Crowleys music may be purchased/downloaded online from his MySpace page and Amazon UK. Other music emporia are available: Google is your friend!

The following preview of Fridays show was presented and produced by Ben Eshmade for Arctic Circle Radio. It contains interviews with, and tunes by, both Adrian (From Champions Avenue To Misery Hill, Sad Bouquet, The Beekeepers Wife) and Gill (Will I Lose My Love?, Wrap Your Treasure):