Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Staves, Deaf Institute Manchester, 20th October 2014 8.5/10

This didn't have the feel of a routine date for The Staves. It was their first re-appearance after a period in the studio, and the 70 minute set premièred new material. A lengthy sound-check paved the way for a near perfect performance. Perhaps they wanted to make their mark on a day when two of their fellow Communion artists, Ben Howard and Bear's Den, were releasing albums. It has been fascinating to witness the evolution of this band. One of my first encounters with The Staves was in 2011, when they supported The Civil Wars at a tiny venue in Manchester. I've also experienced them at The Deaf Institute, in 2012, and at The Ruby Lounge for an album release show later that year, when they slightly underwhelmed me, despite considerable melodic charm.

The new songs signal an intention to fill larger spaces, with fuller textures from three backing musicians on keyboards, guitars, and drums. This was billed as a special, intimate tour, and this first date sold out quickly. An a capella rendition of Wisely and Slow was a reminder of past joys, the sisters' harmonies blending beautifully. Yet, whilst Dead & Born & Grown is a homage to the British nu folk tradition, I regretted its reluctance to take risks, and a lack of emotional range. It felt constrained within the polite boundaries of middle England, however beautiful that world may be.

The Staves' first album was produced by the esteemed Ethan Johns, yet their upcoming EP Blood I Bled was recorded with Justin Vernon, after they met touring in support of Bon Iver. They started this show with Open, and the time they've spent in Wisconsin in Vernon's studio was immediately apparent with intricate layers of electronics. The next new song, Blood I Bled, showed their new found emotional depth and a greater willingness to take risks than I'd noticed before. After a gorgeous rendition of Mexico, they apologetically introduced a scintillating mid set section consisting of more new material from an upcoming Vernon produced album. The audience was just as attentive at this time as during their older hits, vindicating the decision to launch them into the world amongst a small group of devoted fans. The band was note-perfect throughout, with no evidence of a recent break from performing.

The Staves' on stage demeanour reflects the subtlety of their music: there was no wild dancing, or elaborately choreographed movement; but humour was present in their chatter. It suggests an English reserve, though their US mentor Justin Vernon is hardly known for his live exuberance either. Yet, it didn't prevent them from establishing a rapt atmosphere: considerable passion was expressed through music, and I was totally absorbed. Their sound has always been tinged with Americana: they were brought up in a household with the sounds of Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. But like First Aid Kit, who also have links to Manchester, they re-imagine this tradition through the experiences of a  generation for whom technology transcends geographical boundaries. Blood I Bled is the first fruit of the Bon Iver collaboration with just three original songs. Yet. it's an auspicious marker for a full length release next year. They will surely then be selling out far larger spaces: The Staves feel like an act that has come of age.

Set List
  • Open
  • Tongue Behind My Teeth
  • Blood I Bled
  • Pay Us No Mind
  • Mexico
  • Make It Holy
  • Don't You Call Me
  • No Me No You No More
  • Steady
  • Wisely and Slow
  • Black and White
  • Eagle Song
  • Teeth White
  • Facing West
  • Winter Trees

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