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Live: Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo at Folk By The Oak, Hatfield House (22 July 2012)

July 23, 2012

Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo - AlmanacIt’s Monday morning, the day after Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo’s appearance at Folk By The Oak and the weather man on my radio has just informed me that today, like yesterday, will be “hot and sneezy“. So it seems that, at last, “Sumer is icumen in” and although it’s a bit late in the year to “lhude sing cuccu“, nevertheless there was a noticeable amount of audience participation during EB&TRCH’s set yesterday; a sure sign of the burgeoning popularity of one of the best chamber-folk groups on the scene at the moment.

For me, it had been touch-and-go whether I would attend at all: even though I’d bought a ticket months ago, I’d spent most of the preceding few days preoccupied with my own personal black eyed dog and it was only my neighbour Liz practically pushing me out of the door that got me on my way. She was right that I must go, no excuses, and I’m grateful to her for the shove. With each mile that the slow train northwards put between me and the overheating concrete of London, I could feel my blues starting to fade as the greenery intensified. During the last leg of my journey, wandering slowly through the grounds of the 17th century Hatfield House towards the Folk By The Oak site, I could almost feel the weight lifting from my shoulders and by the time reached the entrance gate I knew Liz had been right. I was glad I’d made the effort, after all…

There’s a place that I seek when I need somewhere to hide
It’s a place that I go when I need some peace of mind

[From ‘The Greenway’ (Despite The Snow, 2007)]

As usual, I’d arrived early, to be greeted by the sound of Emily, Gill, Anna and Jo soundchecking ahead of their 2pm start, and it was nice just to float around the site, soaking up the atmosphere. I’ve seen EB&TRCH at a range of venues, from small pubs to enormodrome arenas, historic churches to modern arts centres, but this was the first time I’d seen them play an outdoor music event. To be honest, it was the first outdoor music event I’d been to since – showing my age, here – Glastonbury in 1984! Interestingly, although Folk By The Oak’s ‘no camping’ rule meant there was no need to navigate a labyrinthine tent city to reach the stage, there seemed instead to be a huge number of people who’d turned up with all their garden furniture – folding chairs, picnic tables, sun umbrellas, wicker hampers stuffed with good things to eat – and even a fair scattering of portable gazebos at the back of the arena. The visual effect, to this wild-eyed old woman refugee from the city, was more akin to seeing a field of extras waiting patiently for an episode of The Antiques Roadshow to begin filming, rather than a ragged horde of dispossessed hedonists in search of three days chemically-fuelled oblivion to a soundtrack of the record industry’s idea of what The Yoof should be buying. And you know what? – I was secretly rather glad.

The event itself – now in its fifth year – was run with a laidback efficiency which meant that there was, as they say, a place for everything and everything in itself; the practical result of which meant that the musicians were on stage at exactly their scheduled time and finished on the dot. So it was that I took my place at the front of the stage and had only a few minutes’ wait before a suitably summery-looking Emily, Jo, Anna and Gill took their places on the surprisingly high, open-fronted stage, opening with a confident version of Ropes, from last year’s Almanac album. Taken at a slightly more considered pace than I’ve come to expect, the first thing that struck me was the clarity of the PA system. The quality was astonishingly good from where I stood and served the intricate and nuanced sound far better than I’d been expecting, Emily’s fingerpicking and Gill’s accordion providing the ideal setting for the song’s haunting vocal harmonies.

[L-R:] Emily Barker and Gill Sandell - Folk By The Oak, 22 July 2012

Second on the setlist was Nostalgia, with Gill’s accordion adding an evocative sense of time and place, far removed from the bright sunshine of a Sunday afternoon in a beautiful rustic setting. In its recorded form (buy it here), Nostalgia may also be heard providing an appropriately atmospheric soundtrack to the opening titles of the third series of Wallander, the law-and-disorder drama series, currently airing on BBC1 – and, to judge by the rapturous applause of the audience, it was a firm favourite of many present.

This was followed in short order by Blackbird (from 2007’s Photos.Fires.Fables.), picking up the mood and offering the first of two uptempo numbers making a fine accompaniment to the somewhat genteel carousing of the 5000 bucolic frolickers.

[L-R:] Anna Jenkins and Jo Silverston - Folk By The Oak, 22 July 2012

Next up was Disappear, the second number (Nostalgia being the first) from 2008’s Despite The Snow, and the second uptempo number of the afternoon, the contrast between the heartbroken lyrics and Jo and Anna’s passionate string arrangements creating a tension that drives the song every bit as much as the primeval wail of Emily’s bluesy harmonica.

After the freneticism of the preceding two numbers and with immaculate timing, the band shifted into an understated overdrive with Pause, the second of EB&TRCH’s themes for law-and-disorder television dramas (BBC2’s The Shadow Line). The hi-fi quality of Folk By The Oak’s sound system really came into its own here, the lush four-part harmonies of this song as ever creating a sonic space for reflection as they hung serenely in the warm summer air.

[L-R:] Anna Jenkins, Jo Silverston, Emily Barker, Gill Sandell - Folk By The Oak, 22 July 2012

Maintaining the sense of tranquility, the band launched into the one cover version that regularly appears in their live sets, Neil Young’s Look Out For My Love. You may wonder how a folk group come to be covering a song by one of the real godfathers of rock, but the answer is in the harmonies; the PA system once again letting Emily, Gill, Jo and Anna’s close vocal singing shine through, the icing on the cake being the real-time fade-out at the end.

In her preamble to Openings, Emily told the tale of two young fans of EB&TRCH who have renamed it The Pigeon Song so it was only fitting that Anna and Jo’s riffing introduction to a spirited rendition of the tune should be accompanied by an outbreak of arm-flapping dancing (think ‘the funky chicken goes feral’!) at the front of the stage.

New(er) song Tuesday – from the forthcoming new album – brought with it a change of mood. This was the first time I’d heard it performed by the full band (Emily had played it in her solo set at Ambika P3 a couple of months ago) and the introspective arrangement perfectly suited its low-key lyric about being caught in a cold, distant place and yearning to be home. I’ve no doubt the rest of the album (when it finally arrives, she muttered, impatiently) will be of a similarly high standard and a worthy addition to Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo’s impressive canon of modern folk music. In the meantime, though, I still have Almanac to cherish, and was reminded of just how fresh it still sounds by the closing number, Calendar. The first EB&TRCH song I ever heard, I still can’t hear it without being reminded of that first hearing on a cold, dreary winter’s night when it burst from my radio, sat me down and told me a tale of how humanity’s salvation from an impending environmental disaster lies entirely in our own hands.

Emily Barker - Folk By The Oak, 22 July 2012

At this point, Emily drew the set to a close but I was in no hurry to move away; I know from experience that the band often put planned encores into their setlists and had a sneaking suspicion that they had something similar in mind here. In fact, if I’d been a gambling woman, I’d almost certainly have wagered a shiny penny on Fields Of June making an appearance here. Apart from the fact that it makes a rousing end to the set, it’s also just received a digital release (re-recorded with guest vocals by Frank Turner and backed with Nostalgia) ahead of a limited vinyl edition – so it was a bit of a surprise that the band didn’t return. My hunch is that the organisers may have nixed the idea in order to keep the day on schedule – fair enough, really – so instead I’ll close this review with the new video for Fields Of June and tell you all to click over to Em’s blog, buy a copy immediately and stick it on repeat play until the new album comes along!

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This review is for Jo, whose dedication to music goes way above and beyond the call of duty.

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Setlist:

Ropes
Nostalgia
Blackbird
Disappear
Pause
Look Out For My Love
Openings
Tuesday
Calendar

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[Above: Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo featuring Frank Turner – ‘Fields Of June’. The video was directed by Kieran Short. Purchase/download the single from Xtra Mile Recordings or download from iTunes]

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

Forthcoming live shows by Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo are listed on their blog – click here for details.

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