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Live: Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, London (24 February 2011)

February 24, 2011

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, London (24 February 2011)Unlike many people, who became aware of the music of Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo a couple of years ago when their song Nostalgia was used for the theme for the television series Wallander, my introduction was through a performance of the current single Calendar on Radio 4’s Loose Ends broadcast just last month.

Listening to these two songs back-to-back serves as a useful example of why Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo’s music is so hard to categorise. Underpinned by Emily’s soaring vocals and intricate playing, it would be easy to “file under singer/songwriter” but that would be to understate the simultaneously full yet spacious sound that The Red Clay Halo’s confident musicianship adds to the mix – not to mention Emily’s songwriting, which exhibits a very individual, almost poetic, style filtered through a subtle but well-defined pop sensibility. Calendar is a case in point: it’s only a month since I first heard it, but the melody of its chorus melody has been lodged in my mind since then.

…Let’s sing us a song ’til all seas become calm
’til all selves become one another
then let’s sing it again to remember where we’ve been
all we lost and all we?ve learnt from each other…

As a result, and having had the new album Almanac on almost continuous play for a fortnight, I was really looking forward to catching the band when they played in London yesterday. It was the thirteenth gig on their current 15-date, two week tour which has been criss-crossing the UK, from Exeter to Glasgow and all points between, in support of the release of the album.

The pace of this schedule, which seems to have given the band scarcely any time off, has paid off handsomely in the tightness of the performance and presentation of a lengthy and extraordinarily well-paced set. Even Emily herself remarked at how quickly the evening had passed; hardly surprising in hindsight, given how deeply absorbed both the band and the audience were in the music. That might sound overly reverential and, given the venue (the 18th century Palladian style church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields), apt – but my overwhelming impression was of a band who were familiar enough with the demands of the deceptively complex music to be able to be relaxed enough to play as if it was second nature.

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, London (24 February 2011)

In addition, the versatility of the musicians of The Red Clay Halo (Gill Sandell, Jo Silverdale and Anna Jenkins) as they swapped between acoustic and electric guitars, accordian, flute, cello, banjo and violin) was augmented and enhanced on several songs by a rhythm section (double bass and drums), two horn players – with the album’s co-producer Ted Barnes adding guitar, mandolin and even thumb piano (on – I think – Dancers).

With the procession of musicians on and off the stage (well OK, the chancel, to be pedantic), The Red Clay Halo’s mix-and-match instrumentation and the range and depth of the songs themselves, there was so much to see and hear that it’s no wonder the gig seemed to fly by. And did I mention the gorgeous four-part harmonies throughout? The performance of Pause was a particular highlight – acoustic guitar and four voices, and about as far from the album version, with its powerful use of the pipe organ at the Royal Festival Hall, as you could imagine – the simplicity and openness of this arrangement of a heartbroken lyric sent shivers up and down my spine.

Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo - AlmanacAs I mentioned above, the tour has been to promote the album Almanac and, with a setlist including 10 of its 11 songs, the gig certainly succeeded in that aspect, too. From the opening bars of Ropes to the closing stomp of the second encore Blackbird (from 2007’s Photos. Fires. Fables.), via the singles Calendar and Little Deaths, not to mention a very atmospheric rendition of Nostalgia, the band gave a virtuoso performance which made for one of the most memorable gigs I’ve attended in a very long time – certainly inspirational enough to start me blogging again! If there’s any justice in this world, we’ll be hearing a lot more from Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo in the future.

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, London (24 February 2011)

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Setlist:

Ropes
Nostalgia
Billowing Sea
Reckless
Little Deaths
Dancers
Disappear
Pause
Calendar
Witch Of Pittenweem
Light
Bones
First encore: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Second encore: Blackbird

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Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo’s music may be purchased/downloaded online from http://emilybarker.bandcamp.com/

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