Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Matthew and the Atlas, Castle Hotel Manchester 30th July 2013 9/10
A few days ago, I saw a bluegrass band in Homer, a town literally at the end of the road in South Central Alaska. Manchester is 9 time zones east, and lacks glaciers, volcanoes and brown bears wandering around outside the venue. Yet America and the UK have deep cultural links, and I expected some continuity. When I saw Matthew and the Atlas supporting The Civil Wars last year the instrumentation consisted of banjo, acoustic guitar and violin. I was therefore intrigued when I saw a synthesiser, several guitar amps and a Macbook on stage when I arrived at the venue. My assumption this was for one of the support acts was confounded when they both made quiet acoustic music. Jo Rose in particular performed a beautifully hushed set, leaving the audience spellbound, in contrast to the extrovert dancing I witnessed at the gig in America.
So when Matt Hegarty entered with an electric guitar and his three new band members on bass guitar, drums, and keyboards I was surprised. Matt has re-imagined his sound from the ground up, creating something more original and adventurous. The two EPs released give no hint of this: until the début album comes out later this year, the best indication online is this recent Soundcloud post of Everything That Dies:
The album will be released by London's Communion Records, famous for its relationship with Mumford and Sons, yet there's nothing bombastic about the new Matthew and the Atlas. The increased volume potential of the electric instruments is used sparingly to increase the dynamic range, and the expanded palate is deployed sensitively. The drum kit kicked out a strong bass, yet on occasion only a gentle brushing of cymbal was heard. Electronics were used sparingly and subtly as backing and banjo made a re-appearance late in the evening.
The foundation of this beautiful music remains English folk harmony, and backing vocals were deployed to fill out the sound. Matt's voice has a distinctively gravelly timbre, which has been compared to Ray LaMontagne's, yet last night his use of falsetto reminded me of Bon Iver. Continuity was provided by the sweet melodies throughout and the inclusion of 3 or 4 older songs in the middle of the 50 minute set. When an encore was requested, Matt said 'we don't know any more songs yet': the album is still work in progress. His chatter between songs was minimal, and he was unnecessarily apologetic for any slips. This was the first time his new band had performed these songs in public, yet the ensemble was polished and coherent.
The reverential atmosphere at this event was enhanced by the tiny venue, its height and wooden cladding bringing a warm glow to the acoustic. Lighting was minimal, the band backlit and largely in shadow. Once they release and tour the album, performances in larger venues are inevitable, yet I will cherish the memory of this intimate gig. I've previously considered their music to be timeless but backward looking: with this radical reinvention, Matt has created something more original yet also surprisingly more moving. A sense of honesty has thankfully not been lost: the lyrics are world weary and soulful, with a predominance of ballads. Just one foot stomping number was performed as penultimately. Their songs may be reflective, but the gig wasn't at all depressing: I left feeling transported. I predict critical acclaim and success ahead for Matthew and the Atlas: do not miss the opportunity to go to one of their shows.