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Live: Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo at the Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall, London (27 October 2011)

October 27, 2011

There an opening lies
there a hook to hold us
there an end that finds
a start to reasonings of new kinds

Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo - AlmanacAlthough I’ve lived in London for the best part of a decade, it’s always something of a surprise when I realise how many of the city’s landmark buildings I’ve still never seen. The Royal Albert Hall is a prime example: I’ve been near it a couple of times: from protesting outside the V&A Museum about the intransigence of a large LGB advocacy organisation, to visiting the 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park to pay my respects to those who lost their lives in the 2005 London bombings – but I’ve never made the walk of a few hundred metres between those two places that would have taken me past the RAH. Last night I finally put that right with a visit to that memorial to a long-lost empire for the simple pleasure of hearing Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo perform in the Elgar Room.

It was the third time this year that I’ve seen the band and they do seem to have the knack of picking venues that you might initially think were a risky choice for a modern folk ensemble which then turn out to be absolutely right and an inspired choice. So it was with the Elgar Room, a completely refurbished part of the RAH: an L-shaped room with flat white-painted walls, its own bar and a selection of large prints of previous, noted performers at the RAH. But the sound quality of the in-house PA system was surprisingly good – clear and warm with a frequency range that effortlessly reproduced everything the musicians threw at it.

Opening the evening’s proceedings was EP’s Trailer Park, who drily assured us they’d rowed in an open boat all the way from Stockholm before serving up a robust but intricate set which managed to retain its own character while still letting its musical influences shine through.

They were followed in short order by Gill Sandell, one of the four members of The Red Clay Halo, who showcased her current CD Tarry Awhile with understated but highly effective musical support from her fellow Halo, Anna Jenkins on violin and vocals, and Jen Macro, on loan from Something Beginning With L for the evening, on bass and vocals.

Gill Sandell with Anna Jenkins (left) and Jen Macro (right)

The interaction between Gill and Anna especially was fascinating to see and offered an insight into the way that the music of Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo has developed over recent months. From the first note to the last it was apparent that the band is musically tighter than ever, undoubtedly one of the benefits of the intensive touring schedule they’ve undertaken this year, and currently sounds to be in fine shape.

This was the first gig of theirs I’ve seen where no guest musicians have joined them on stage – the album launch in February showcased a much augmented lineup, even the May gig saw Almanac’s co-producer Ted Barnes providing guitar, mandolin and thumb piano on several songs but this gig saw the core band alone – Emily, Gill, Jo and Anna – and, as is usual with this group of talented multi-instrumentalists, there was much swapping between acoustic and electric guitars, accordian, flute, cello, banjo and violin. And, for me, it was the perfect opportunity to hear the band sounding as I remembered it from the first time I heard Calendar on Radio 4’s Loose Ends programme back in January.

Of course, when I say that no other musicians joined the band, there’s always an exception to prove the rule: Dom Coyote, guitar tech, style guru(!) and a talented musician in his own right, contributed vocals to both Witch Of Pittenweem and the first encore, Fields Of June (from 2007’s Photos.Fires.Fables.) – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Opening with Billowing Sea, the first of four songs from the current album Almanac, the band took them at a faster pace than I remembered. In fact, listening to Anna and Jo’s blisteringly tight riffing at the start of Openings I wondered if Emily, at that point focused on adjusting her amp, would miss her cue for the first verse. No fear of that, though – Emily, like the rest of the band, is nothing if not a consummate professional and a graceful half-turn and step forward saw her in front of the mic without missing a beat. After Little Deaths came Pause which, although missing the huge pipe organ part of the album version, retains its atmosphere by allowing the four-part harmony singing of the band to take centre stage. I’ve said before that the full harmony vocalising is something at which Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo really excel and last night was no exception. Indeed, I’d say it’s one of the real strengths and hallmarks of the band; Emily and Gill in particular seem to have developed a very effective interplay. But for me, the real goosebump moments are always when all four are at the mic, Pause being a real highlight of the set.

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo, RAH, 27 October 2011

Following that was Calendar after which the band, by now obviously in their stride, began to stretch out and were clearly enjoying themselves – no mean feat, twelve gigs into a 21-date tour, to be followed by a further six dates supporting and playing with Frank Turner. Two songs from Despite The Snow, the second album, highlighted the integral part that Jo and Anna’s strings play, Disappear being another highspot for me. After Light – a song with one of the most subtle and infectious hooks I’ve heard in a long time, underpinned by Gill’s accordion – Dom joined the band for a powerful version of Witch Of Pittenweem.

New(er) song The Rains was next up: it received its first public performance at the Kings Place gig in May; I said at the time that the vocal harmonies are some of the strongest and sweetest I’d heard from the band and this version didn’t disappoint. Instrumentally it’s grown a long way from that earlier version, consolidating and extending on it, playing with different instrumentation – and I hope it receives a full release soon! The set ended with the plaintive harmonies of the heartbreaking Bones hanging in the air, by which time the audience was reluctant to let Emily, Gill, Jo and Anna go.

To much enthusiastic applause, they returned for two encores, Fields Of June from the first album and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. Dom rejoined for the first of these, now a rousing stomper with Anna and Jo providing a highly original and effective string arrangement and the audience enthusiastically raising the roof, perhaps surprisingly, given the lyrical content. Bringing the show to a close with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face a cover of the Ewan MacColl song which encapsulated the inventiveness of Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo and their ability to take familiar songs from their repertoire and rework them in completely new ways without losing the emotive power of the previous versions. Live, so far, I’d only heard this song performed solo by Emily – you can download a version with additional piano and trumpet, recorded during the Almanac sessions, for free (see Emily’s blog for full details) – so it was a treat to hear it played by the whole band with yet another instrumental arrangement.

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo, RAH, 27 October 2011

The music of Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo has been one of the listening highlights of my year and, even allowing for my own subjectivity, I don’t think it can be denied that this is a band which deserves a much wider, dare I say mainstream, audience. Given the stiff competition they’re up against – there have been some strong albums this year from established and new names alike (June Tabor & Oysterband, Gillian Welch, The Unthanks, Samantha Whates, Mechanical Bride, The Gentle Good, to name a few) and the fast-moving nature of the music industry – it speaks volumes to me that I’m still listening, a lot, to an album which was released at the start of the year. The songs on Almanac (and its predecessors) have cheered and comforted this fangirl through the extreme range of highs and lows of a year which has unquestionably been the worst of her life and she’s forever grateful to music which she discovered by chance and holds close like the treasure that it is. Seriously, if you’re able to catch the band over the next few weeks (tour dates here), you should – even (especially?) if modern folk isn’t usually to your taste. You won’t regret it.

There’s a reason to be reckless when a new hope hits the shore
I’ve been drinking all those questions I don’t wanna ask no more
For every whole that broke and every height that fell before
I’ll risk it all again for the giddy sake of more…



Billowing Sea
Little Deaths
Witch Of Pittenweem (Guest vocals – Dom Coyote)
The Rains
First encore: Fields Of June (Guest vocals – Dom Coyote)
Second encore: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face


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

Gill Sandell’s music may be purchased/downloaded online from Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon.

EP’s Trailer Park’s music may be purchased/downloaded online from iTunes, Bengans and CDON

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