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Live: Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo at the Strongroom Bar, Shoreditch (27 June 2012)

June 27, 2012

Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo - AlmanacHaving only heard about this gig a few days previously via Twitter, I was happy to be able to head along to the Strongroom Bar in Shoreditch to catch up with Emily, Gill, Jo and Anna. It was three months to the day since I’d last heard them play at the Half Moon in Putney – and they haven’t let the grass grow under their feet in the meantime.

From there, their first European tour, supporting Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, had taken them through to mid-April, including a fantastic evening on the 13th when they’d provided backing vocals, violin, cello, accordion (and Emily’s spirit-of-Chess-Records harmonica!) for FT&TSS at a sellout show at the Wembley Arena. After that, there’d been some three weeks’ hiatus for the band, although it was hardly a time for sitting around with their feet up. Emily had undertaken a solo tour in Australia followed by a handful of shows back in the UK (my review of her set for Memoirs of Lost Time at Ambika P3 is here) – and did I mention the Ivor Novello Awards?! Meanwhile, Anna had been on the road with Amsterdam; Gill had played some gigs with her band (I reviewed her support set for at Adrian Crowley at Kings Place here) and Jo had been honouring her own commitments, including some recording sessions with Jenny Lindfors – who’d opened for EB&TRCH at the Half Moon gig. Which brings me rather neatly round full-circle, back across town from Putney to Shoreditch…

The Strongroom Bar occupies part of a converted furniture warehouse which housed the original Strongroom studio in the mid-1980s and this tradition of providing a space for some of the best musicians to work continues with the regular weekly Strongroom Sessions. Standing outside in the courtyard, soaking up the sultry evening sun and chatting to various Halos as they flitted in and out, meant that I missed the opening couple of numbers of support act Ruby Blu, but caught enough of his set to realise that the London-based indie soul songwriter has a powerful and unique voice and some very original material. With influences including Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading, songs like Poison and The Boyfriend Song were particular highlights and the forthcoming EP should be well worth checking out.

Opening with the familiar strings and flute over fingerstyle guitar, Emily, Anna, Jo and Gill eased their way into Billowing Sea, the venue’s comparatively small size allowing the timbres of the acoustic instruments to come across in a way that gave fresh insight into the nuances of the band’s sound. The fragile vocal harmonies of Ropes also benefited from the proximity of band and audience, the bleak lyric of heartbreak and unrequited love given a sensitive setting with the interplay between Anna’s floating violin and the sustained chords of Gill’s accordion in particular tugging at the heartstrings.

Emily Barker, Strongroom Bar, 27 June 2012

Nostalgia – heard to good effect in BBC1’s Wallander law-and-disorder drama series a couple of years ago – was the first of three songs from 2008’s Despite The Snow to be given an airing. Emily’s plaintive singing underpinned by murmuring strings and an accordion part which, for me, always conjures up images of an imaginary cold, grey European city, demonstrates not only why the song was picked up for television, but also why it’s such a regular feature of EB&TRCH’s live set.

Lifting the mood was Blackbird, which has evolved from its original, low key incarnation (on 2007’s Photos.Fires.Fables. album) into a real stomper and its longevity in the live set owes as much to Emily’s skills as a songwriter as it does to the imagination and musicianship of the individual members of the band.

We reached the midpoint of the set with Disappear, the second number from Despite The Snow, another uptempo number with Jo’s cello crashing on the shores of a lyric simultaneously angry and sad, while Anna’s strings soared above the howl of Emily’s harmonica.

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo [L-R]: Anna Jenkins, Jo Silverston, Strongroom Bar, 27 June 2012

The slow, strummed chords of Pause – in its remixed version, used as the theme for another law-and-disorder television drama (BBC2’s The Shadow Line) – provided the backdrop for the four-part harmonies of this song which never fails to touch me deeply, raising the hairs on the back of my neck and goosebumps on my arms. Always stunning and one of my very favourite EB&TRCH songs, it was followed by another, Calendar which, with its rainbow of tone colours, lifted the tempo and allowed the band to stretch out and shift up into musical overdrive.

A short between-songs interlude for a quick spot of lipstick removal (don’t ask!) was followed by the heavily – excuse the bad pun – rejigged Storm In A Teacup, now known simply as Jig -> Teacup. This was only the second time I’d heard this incarnation of it and it exemplifies EB&TRCH’s consummate skill at reinventing their music, breathing new life into older songs and coming up with fresh arrangements which bring out aspects of the original which you might never have known were in there. Unusually for the band, this is now a largely instrumental piece with a lengthy opening section which moves from a very ethereal beginning with Anna’s violin and Emily’s guitar interweaving like an audio equivalent of a Celtic illuminated manuscript, picking up impetus with Jo’s dramatic swathes of cello. Finally the lyric bursts into life, Emily and Gill’s harmonies to the fore, the percussive fills provided by Gill bringing it to a satisfyingly loud crescendo.

After an instrumental workout like that, it seemed only natural to follow with another showcase for the band’s vocal harmonies – and a cover of Neil Young’s Look Out For My Love offered exactly that. It’s a while since I’ve heard EB&TRCH play this live and it was good to hear it again, not least because I’d been on a bit of a Neil Young binge myself in recent days. And while Anna’s rock’n’roll violin part was an undoubted highlight, it’s the vocals that really make this version something special. On a slightly music-geeky note, the live fade on the vocals at the end was a seriously impressive demonstration of the empathy between Emily, Jo, Gill and Anna.

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo [L-R]: Emily Barker, Gill Sandell, Strongroom Bar, 27 June 2012

Bones closed the set. Its retelling of the legacy of the violence of colonialism against the indigenous people of Australia by the British Empire is never an easy listen – but then, it’s not supposed to be. A sobering reminder that none of us is truly innocent of the war crimes committed in our names, and the passing of the years doesn’t lessen that fact one iota.

A short break was followed by the band returning for one last chance to let it rip with another old favourite, Fields Of June. I’ve previously described this as having developed into “a mutant Central European polka with added blues harmonica” and it’s a description I stand by. This, if you were wondering, is a Good Thing. A Very Good Thing. Emily, Gill, Anna and Jo clearly have a lot of fun with this song, Emily taking on both protagonists’ lyrics with aplomb and still managing to blow a mean blues harp in the middle eight.

And that was that, pretty much: another highly enjoyable set from four of my favourite musicians to send me home to the boondocks of Shepherd’s Bush with ears ringing and a headful of tunes from a band which must surely soon achieve the commercial success it so richly deserves.

Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo [L-R]: Anna Jenkins, Gill Sandell, Jo Silverston, Emily Barker, Strongroom Bar, 27 June 2012

As for the future, well, there’s plenty to look forward to. In the live arena, Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo have a string of festival appearances lined up for the summer – the full list is up at Emily’s blog here. The band’s next scheduled London performance is in November at the Union Chapel in Islington: this will be the first time they’ve headlined there and should be a fantastic show – you can buy early bird tickets from here.

On the recording front, Emily mentioned that a full release of Fields Of June should be happening soon (I’m guessing just maybe with a cameo appearance by a certain F. Turner, Esq!). And then there’s the new album… The band had spent most of the three weeks before this gig working on it – a week’s pre-production in Norfolk was followed by an intensive week-and-a-half in Glasgow at Gorbals Sound, laying down the chosen 13 tracks under the watchful eye of producer Calum Malcolm, and it’s provisionally slated for release early next year.

Emily played a clutch of new songs during her recent solo sets (she included one, Tuesday, in a session for Noise11 TV while she was in Australia) and versions of The Rains and In The Winter I Returned are up at Emily’s YouTube page, along with some video diaries from their time in the studio.

From these few, tantalising sneak previews, it’s already clear that the new album is going to be something quite special – although heaven only knows how I’m going to contain my impatience for the next six months! – and it’s to be hoped that this will be the breakthrough album that at last brings Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo the degree of recognition they so richly deserve.

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Setlist:

Billowing Sea
Ropes
Nostalgia
Blackbird
Disappear
Pause
Calendar
Jig -> Storm In A Teacup
Look Out For My Love
Bones
Encore: Fields Of June

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