Monday, May 26, 2008

Forget Eurovision, let's go to a gig!

While everyone else was glued to the telly watching Terry Wogan talking all the way though a lot of Eurocheese, I was at a gig.

I've been to some funny places for gigs this year. Last time I saw support act Mermaid Kiss was supporting Panic Room in a village hall in Gloucestershire. This time it was a working mens club in Nottinghamshire, walls covered in posters for dodgy Black Sabbath tribute bands.

Support band Mermaid Kiss play atmospheric keyboard-driven music with female lead vocals; they're recorded two full-length albums plus an EP to date, of which the most recent "Etarlis" is the best. Live, they're currently gigging with a semi-acoustic lineup, a five-piece consisting of vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, keys and woodwinds; no electric guitars or drums. This means they can't really play the more rocky songs in their repertoire, but the more atmospheric stuff still comes over well.

Seeing the low ceiling in the venue I feared the worst for the sound quality, but once Mermaid Kiss took the stage my fears proved unfounded; the sound was pretty-near perfect. Much of the set was similar to to the last time I saw them in April, with several new songs from their as-yet unrecorded next album. High spot was an absolutely mesmerising “Seattle”, sung totally solo by vocalist Evelyn Downing.

Headliners Breathing Space are an offshoot of York's finest band Mostly Autumn. They started out as a side project by Mostly Autumn's keyboard player Iain Jennings and backing singer Olivia Sparnenn, and developed into a band in their own right after Iain left The Mostlies at the end of 2005. Although he rejoined his former band at the beginning of this year (and Olivia never left), Breathing Space continue as a going concern. They've pared back the prog-rock influences of Iain's past, and have now play a mix of rockier numbers with an 80s feel and big soaring ballads that give Olivia Sparnenn's great voice a place to shine.

Tonight they played an absolute blinder, certainly the best headline set I’ve ever seen them play, helped by the same crystal-clear sound. Something like a two-hour set, playing practically all of their superb “Coming Up for Air”, several songs from the first album, and three Iain Jennings-penned Mostly Autumn favourites. I have to say it was strange hearing Breathing Space playing “Distant Train” the night after hearing the Mostlies playing the same song at Bury Met (And I’m not going to get into arguments over which version was the best!). “Hollow” was lovely; Olivia Sparnenn has made that song her own now. So was the encore “The Gap is Too Wide”; in both cases they had to be the best live versions of those songs I’ve heard. The latter was very poignant on this occasion; Iain Jennings wrote the song back in 2001 to commemorate the death of mother; Olivia's father Howard (who I had the great privilege of knowing) passed away a few weeks back.

Their own songs came over at wonderfully well too; with some interesting takes on arrangements in places, such as John Hart’s wind synth replacing the slide guitar on “Don’t Turn a Blind Eye” and the extended jazzy instrumental section in “Head Above The Water”. It’s difficult to find anything to say about Livvy Sparnenn and Iain Jennings I haven’t said before, they were both on great form tonight. But I do have to say I’m finding myself liking Mark Rowan’s guitar playing more and more. He’s not flash, but his playing is always exactly what the songs require, never playing a note more than is needed, whether it’s the fluid soloing on the title song of “Coming Up for Air” or his really simple but amazingly effective solos on the big soaring ballads.

Two great bands, nearly three hours of great music. It’s a crying shame that they played to such a tiny audience, something like fifty people. Surely this beats watching the Eurovision Song Contest on the telly?

PS, if you want to hear what they sound like (Blimpy, I'm looking at you!), Breathing Space have several songs on their myspace site, as do Mermaid Kiss

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