Live review: Kathryn Williams
Support: Moss & Jones, Robert Vincent
Date: Wednesday 10th June 2015
Venue: Leaf on Bold St
Reviewer: Will Barnes
This is the second time I’ve been to a gig upstairs at Leaf. The first time, a friend had a plus one to see a then up-and-coming indie band I forget the name of, and it seemed a big impersonal barn-like space. Tonight, though, with tables and chairs in, it became something of an intimate setting for an acoustic gig.
Moss & Jones take to the stage first, in evening wear. Moss’s black dress is accessorised with a bottle green fake fur, and Jones wears a green blazer to match. It’s a good look, and one that advertises what is to come very well – a combination of the traditional and the esoteric.
Keeping stage chatter to a minimum they immediately launch into an a capella version of the traditional Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, Moss’s soprano at times very very high, and Jones’s bass contrariwise going very very low.
Picking up ukulele (Moss) and melodica (Jones), they then perform their recent e-single Ella Brown, which is a tale of lost love, Moss taking the lead and Jones providing harmony, and finishing on a plagal cadence. Switching instruments, its traditional B-side Reynardine is performed on mandolin and accordion.
The next song, I later discover from their website (mossandjones.bandcamp.com), is entitled Millbrook. Another original song, Moss dedicates it to her sister. It is a tale of childhood adventures and imagination, and a line pondering what exactly it is that ice cream vans sell in winter in Kirkby draws a laugh from much of the audience. Another a capella song follows, the duo somehow conjuring up a whole choir despite using only two voices.
Their closing song Shepherd’s Delight has Moss back on ukulele and Jones juggling recorder, glockenspiel and backing vocals. All in all, a very good set, and it moved attending BBC DJ Janice Long to praise the duo highly in her radio show that night.
Robert Vincent is up next, and is a bloke with an acoustic guitar. Having seen a large number of sets by blokes with acoustic guitars it takes a lot for one to impress me, but Vincent makes a fair attempt, and certainly ends up above mid-table.
His first song showcases his strong voice and has an upbeat, late 60s Beach Boys vibe. It’s good, but feels somehow like a song for a band rather than a solo performer, particularly when the middle 8 consists of him just strumming chords, head down. The impression continues into his next song, introduced as being called Blue, when he seems to be doing call-and-response vocals by himself.
A mouth organ is strapped on for the third song, and deployed sparingly. He’s actually a really good ‘harp’ player, doing the kind of stuff I thought could only be done by a player devoting their entirety to the instrument.
The guitar is retuned to something open for the fourth song, which has a rolling, slightly droney vibe, which quite suits the lyric, referencing waves on the sea.
Apologising for the delay caused by retuning his guitar to standard, he launches into a soulful upbeat number called The Passage. His website (www.robertvincentmusic.com) reveals that he released it as a single, and you can see why. It’s catchy and tuneful, and probably the highlight of his set.
It’s immediately followed by the weakest song of the set, The Bomb, which just really didn’t do anything for me. It was during this song that I began to feel like maybe he’d played for a little too long – despite having some very strong material, his set lacked a bit of sonic variety, particularly when following Moss & Jones’s.
The final song Demons is finger-picked and delicate. It’s very nice, and a good closer, but it feels like a string section is going to kick in in the second verse, which being a solo set, it obviously doesn’t.
Overall, a fairly good set, and I think I’d like to see him play with a backing band. According to his website he does have a band, with whom he sometimes appears, so watch this space.
Headliner Kathryn Williams takes to the stage flanked by a bassist and a guitarist who doubles on piano. The first song Picture Book is very sparse, with Williams finger-picking, the bass sounding like a cello, and the guitarist barely touching his instrument and contributing subtle harmonies.
The second song, Gave It Away, sounds fuller, with Williams strumming a chugging rhythm and the second guitar abandoned in favour of the piano. Having investigated her discography, I’m now wishing I’d bought her previous album Crown Electric as well as the new one, as all of the songs in this part of the set are taken from it.
Underground is introduced as having being written about and immediately following a panic attack. It’s a gentle country-ish song and gets a big round of applause.
She breaks off after this into an explanation of her new album, and the fact that a) this is the first time the songs from it have been played live, and b) she’s going to play all of them. The album is entitled Hypoxia and is inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It began as a commission to write a few songs for an event, but then the subject captivated Williams and she ended up writing a whole album’s worth.
She does indeed play all of the songs from the album, in a slightly different order to that in which they appear on the CD. It’s a varied set of songs, beginning with the sparse, plucked Electric, and the grungy Battleships.
A loop pedal is deployed for recent single Mirrors, which Williams dedicates to the BBC Radio DJs who have been playing it, looping her insistent backing vocals. The pedal is used again on next song Tango with Marco, with a loop of Latin-tinged percussion being created using only Williams’s voice and tambourine and the bassist’s fingers tapping his amp.
“That’s the happy songs over with… you think I’m joking”, Williams says at this point, before going into the sparse Beating Heart, with lyrics drawing from a section of The Bell Jar where the narrator attempts suicide. Certainly not happy, but a beautiful melody and very affecting. Part of Us follows, with a countryish sound, like Patsy Cline or something from the 1950s – the bass is dancing but the singer is heartbroken.
Williams takes a moment to explain a bit more about her feelings about Plath at this point, and observes that as much as anything, it’s Plath’s brutal honesty in her writing that informed the writing of the album – songs that, as she put it, she’d not necessarily feel comfortable singing in front of her mum.
The Mind Has Its Own Place and When Nothing Meant Less followed, after which she announced that the next song was the last song, with heavy irony, sending up the standard false finish and encore routine many bands do, her humour again breaking through the heaviness of the subject matter.
The ‘last’ song was Cuckoo, written from the perspective of the the mother of the lead character in The Bell Jar. It has a strangely cheerful sort of sound, with cuckoo cries interpolated, but playing on the meanings of cuckoo – replacing other birds’ eggs with their own, and being an old-fashioned pejorative term for a mentally ill person – it’s not all sunshine.
I’m sure if I’d been more familiar with Plath’s work I would have got more from the lyrical content of this part of the set, but as a casual listener, I think it holds up as a set of songs on its own merit.
Williams and her small band do indeed leave the stage after Cuckoo, deliberately hiding badly behind the speakers at one side of the stage before returning for a short set of older songs. Little Black Numbers, surprisingly not from her album of the same title, has looped backing vocals and Heart Shaped Stone is a very nice song, again from Crown Electric.
For the final song Williams invites her sister to join her on vocals, and explains that she’s had a kind of tradition of finishing on a cover that can only be heard at her gigs, and that for this tour it’s Neil Young’s I Believe In You. It’s a very good rendition, and tops off a captivating set.
Review © 2015 Will Barnes – Liverpool Acoustic
website – kathrynwilliams.co.uk
facebook – facebook.com/KathrynWilliamsMusic
twitter – @kathwilliamsuk
Live review: Kathryn Williams @ Leaf 10/6/15
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