I must’ve been keen for this one because I was standing outside before they even opened the doors. Listening to the conversations of those around me, it was clear that, like me, most of them don’t live in Liverpool but had travelled into the city especially for this gig. Quite a few of them were seeing the headliner for the second time, having been so impressed by his appearance supporting Richard Hawley at Liverpool Music Week last October.
It was my first gig at this venue and what a fine place it is. It looks like what it is, a recording studio replete with soft furnishings. There’s parquet flooring, a low stage covered in retro carpet, portraits of jazz greats on the wood panelled walls and a huge red LED sign saying “ON AIR” It’s a small venue that’s pretty rammed by the time the gig starts. The sumptuous bar area is decorated with covers of some big-selling but dull albums that were recorded here (Coldplay, Elbow) as well as at Bjork’s magnificent “Homogenic” album that surely can’t have been, can it?
Support tonight came from local band Gulf. There’s a free track to download on their website but it doesn’t really do justice to how good their material is. They combine retro drum machine sounds with funky Nile Rodgers style guitar and (apologies if I’m about to get too technical…) lots of wibbly wobbly noises from the keyboard. Throw some heavily FX-laden guitars into the mix and you’ve got a band who would fit well onto the more accessible end of the roster of labels like 4AD / Bella Union / One Little Indian. Best of all was the vocals, lots of cool harmonies and the lead singer’s voice was fantastic; pure Scritti Politti pop-soul, smooth, sweet and totally without histrionics.
Check out this stripped down version of “Emitter” to hear what I mean.
So on to main act then and this is someone I was very excited about. You may remember a band called Race Horses whose song “Cake” we played on podcast number 49. That song is from their 2010 album “Goodbye Falkenburg” which is a decent album but the thing that really makes it stand out from other slightly psychedelic slightly Pulp-y indie rock is the vocals. Race Horses split up in 2013 and their singer Meilyr Jones went off to Rome to recuperate. There he spent time reading great Romantic literature, visiting art galleries, listening to Berlioz and all the other stuff that being in such a monumentally culturally and historically significant city inspires you to do.
The resulting album opens with a track called “How To Recognise a Work of Art.” Well, I don’t know much about art but I know what I like. It’s clearly an album that’s been put together with great care and no doubt at great expense, for a relatively small label like Moshi Moshi. But I believe that they’re right to put their money and their faith into an album like this because I’ve only been listening to it for about a month and I’m already convinced that this album is a classic. Lyrically it seems to tell the story of a journey through heartbreak, loss and coming out the other side of that (“Return to Life”) into some kind of resolution on the stunning final track “Be Soft.” The musical arrangements are astounding. The album sounds very grand, very baroque, very “Forever Changes” with a dash of “Bryter Later.” Check out this photo of the CD inlay card. The left hand side credits 46 orchestral musicians, including 2 (TWO!) harpists and 17 people that comprise the Glad Cafe Choir. Some bloke by the name of Wezi Elliott plays something called a theorbo. To use the parlance of our times: “WTF?!!?”
Being the helpfully informative wizard I am, I have Googled it so that you don’t have to. A theorbo is a large 20-stringed instrument that you strum like a guitar. It’s basically a fucking big lute and surely the forefather of the dreaded twin-necked guitar.
In addition, on the right hand side of the inlay card you’ve got all the people playing the more traditional indie-rock instruments (bass, guitar, drums etc)
So I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the gig because obviously not all these musicians are going to fit on that stage. Even if they did, I am no economist but at 7 quid a ticket you’re going to have to sell a lot of merch just to cover the petrol money spent on getting everyone there!
It turned out that the band were just 5 people including Meilyr but there was so much instrument swapping, mike stand and personnel movement that it seemed like there were more! Drummer Gwyn Llewellyn also sang and played trumpet. Emma Smith started on the Hohner violin bass, so iconic round here, but at various stages of the evening was seen brandishing violins, clarinets and saxophones. Euan Hinshelwood and Richard Jones moved around so much I lost track of which one was which but between them they played guitar, bass, keyboard, bongos, another sax, another violin and on the very last song some kind of bass synth thing. Meilyr himself is the former bassist with 2 acts who are very much favourites with us wizards, Super Furry Gruff’s band Neon Neon and the glorious genius Euros Childs, and tonight he popped up on bass guitar on the positively groovy b-side “All is Equal in Love.” These 5 people are the 1970s Holland team, everyone popping up in every position and excelling in whatever role they were given. Total football! The only thing I can be sure of is that at no point did anybody play the theorbo.
As expected, the setlist was pretty much a run-through of the album and I wouldn’t want it any other way. After kicking off with a raucous rollicking Rocks-Offing “How to Recognise a Work of Art“, Meilyr changed the mood in an instant starting “Passionate Friend” (not the Teardrop Explodes song) stood on the lip of the stage and singing off-mike. Previously I’ve seen Tony Bennett and Elvis Costello do this live and just as it was then, tonight it’s a hair-standing-up-on-arms moment.
Another of those comes soon after when the rest of the band leave the stage for Meilyr to perform “Refugees” on solo piano, a mighty tour de force of a song which was one of my selections for our Best of 2015 podcast. The live version was amazing and as I looked across the stage, I could see the audience on the other side just staring open-mouthed in wonder having been taken completely away from their lives and becoming wrapped up in this song. That’s why we leave our comfy sofas to go and see live music, for moments like that.
The band got a bit early 70s Bowie / Roxy on “Strange Emotional” and as well as some more fantastic singing, Meilyr moved off the stage to show off some pretty weird and wonderful dance moves right up close to the front row. He’s got this interesting contrast going on where during the song’s performance he’s incredibly intense, pumped-up, a little aloof, mysterious, unpredictable, glamorous and everything a proper pop star should be. But then as soon as the last chord fades, he transforms, softening all the rough edges and reverting into an affable modest softly spoken Welsh lad.
When they announce that they will play 2 more songs, I think “oh bugger” as I mentally count off 4 favourite songs from the album they haven’t played yet. The songs “Rome” and “Be Soft” were not played tonight but it seems nit-picky of me to complain about that after such a great gig. The first of the 2 songs that were played was “Return to Life” and here was another highlight of the night.
A few words about gig etiquette. Whilst the huge majority of this audience were as entranced as I was, there were half a dozen people near the back who had come out for a drink and a catch-up. Fair enough, it’s Friday night and I like drinking and nattering as much as the next wizard but if that’s what you want to do, then go and do it in one of 100s of other bars that Liverpool has to offer. If you don’t want to go far, you could just walk 15 meters to the separate bar area in this very venue that was empty during the gig and would’ve been ideal for such a purpose. Talking to your mates throughout a gig is, at best, inconsiderate and disrespectful and as you can probably tell from this paragraph, something that really pisses me off.
One thing I don’t think I’ve ever seen done before in 30 years of gig-going is for the singer to force them into silence. “Return to Life” has a couple of sections where most of the band drop out and when he realised that the people chatting weren’t going to stop in those bits, then Meilyr just stopped singing. Not for long but just long enough to shame the people at the back into shutting the fuck up. That takes balls and best of all it worked! *
*for a bit
Following that was “Featured Artist” possibly the catchiest song on the album with a dynamite self-analytical lyric and a chorus of “I will never rehearse.” Here again it hits you what an amazingly good singer Meilyr is, calling to mind under-rated singers such as Billy Mackenzie, Paul Heaton, Kevin Rowland and highlighting just how much I need to update my reference points.
I didn’t know the last song of the gig but bandmember Euan told me afterwards that it’s called “Watchers” and it was recorded for the album but didn’t make the final cut. Apparently it’s about a man who looks at the sea for a long time and then goes blind. It was a very gentle song with beautiful backing vocals and great way to end a great gig.
Meilyr Jones is on tour a lot over the next few months and he’s busy in festival season. Looks like there are more dates being announced for the Autumn too. Check his website for dates and get yourself along to see a really special show.
In the meantime, buy the album and don’t shuffle mode it. Listen to it in full and in the right order and you will fall in love with it like I have.
Thanks very much to Robin Linton for the great photos above. As you can see they are far better than the rubbish ones I took.
Bonus web link:
- theorbo player Wezi Elliott’s website which goes by the wondrous name of Luteus Maximus