Thursday, December 17, 2015

Smoke Fairies, Soup Kitchen Manchester, 16th December 2015 8/10

I'm averse to popular Christmas tunes: perhaps as a consequence of spending my formative years at Cambridge, where a completely different form of festive music prevailed. Yet, two seasonal albums have won me over: Low's outstanding 1999 EP, and more recently, Smoke Fairies' Wild Winter. The publicity around its Rough Trade release last Christmas gave reassurance there is 'not a tinkling sleigh bell to be heard', and they explained in an interview: 'the last thing we wanted to do was make a classic, jolly, celebratory album that can only be played once a year. Sometimes winter provides us with a sense of togetherness and love, and sometimes it leaves us feeling alienated'. Christmas is a time of loneliness for some, and one of stress and pressure for many, when it feels even more necessary than usual to make space to get lost in music.

The chill of winter was evident not outside, but in the venue's over-active air conditioning and the eerily atmospheric Elle Mary and the Badmen. The Manchester support act's slowcore reminded me of Low's minimalist approach. Elle world is that of an introvert, and thankfully the audience remained quiet enough to enable total immersion. Her bass player and drummer were sensitive to the mood, and British folk influences gave some warmth and humanity to balance the more boldly experimental aspects of this act. Elle was shy on stage, but her music encompasses the irony that Smoke Fairies' Jessica conveyed; their EP is called Happiness. I'm keen to listen their upcoming album, and to experience a headline show; since as with Sharon Van Etten, hope lies behind the cathartic sadness.

Smoke Fairies also have a basis in folk: their multi instrumentalist played fiddle in several songs, and the weaving female vocal harmonies were reminiscent of The Staves'. Yet, although they're described as a dream pop group, their more recent guitar heavy numbers remind me of atmospheric LA group Warpaint. In this intimate space, Smoke Fairies were similarly hypnotic. They make a creative, restrained use of electronics, yet at the same time an influences as ancient as medieval plainchant are embraced. Katherine and Jessica met at school in Sussex, but their time spent in New Orleans has brought a wholly beneficial blues influence. The drummer and bass players were completely in the groove, and the often relaxed tempo giving space for the music to breath and luxuriate in the reverb. filled vocal beauty. Their stage craft is relatively demure, and the audience restrained, but the gift of melody evident in a song such as Your Own Silent Movie provides magic.

This was of course a special seasonal show, so the ninety minute set was heavy on songs from Wild Winter. Opening with the funky 3 Kings (which I actually consider to be one of the weaker tracks on the album, along with Bad Good), they encompassed the Captain Beefheart cover Steal Softly Thru Snow, The Handsome Family's So Much Wine, and the gorgeously melancholy title song. Yet most poignant was Nothing To Divide Us, when a previously taciturn Jessica explained that given all the religious wars, humanity needs to recognise we have more in common than we realise. Give and Receive was especially lovely too, presenting a bystander's view of the Christ Child. This album was recorded immediately after the self titled one in long takes over just a few days in the studio, and its spontaneity was all the more evident live. Katherine and Jessica have clearly gained in confidence, and I can't wait for them to bring this new freer style to non-seasonal new material. Happy Christmas!

Set List
  • 3 Kings
  • Shadow Inversions
  • Give and Receive
  • Circles In The Snow
  • Hotel Room
  • Eerie Lackawana
  • Christmas Without A Kiss
  • Bad / Good
  • So Much Wine
  • Up In The Air
  • Nothing To Divide Us
  • Gastown
  • Blood Speaks
  • Wild Winter

  • Steal Softly
  • Want It Forever

Elle Mary (support)

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