When the support act took to the stage at the Post Office Social Club tonight, my first impression was that they seemed a little out of place opening for what we were expecting from the headliners. The two tank-top clad ladies, one with acoustic guitar and the other with (I think) some sort of Mandolin, practically screamed “Folk music!” at the audience who, practically to a man, would have been expecting something a bit louder later on.
Two are Helen Turner and Sharon Winfield, who have been writing and playing together since 2006 and have released two albums (One and Two). Tonight’s opener, Morecombe Bay (which, like most of tonight’s song, appears on neither of those albums – and may or may not have been about the cockle-pickers who were drowned there in 2004) sounded a little discordant to me, with a handful of out-of-place “twangs” seemingly intruding into the playing. As the song progressed it became much more flowing, with tight playing and nice harmonies. Grandfather’s Ghost started more softly, leading into a powerful chorus, while Spontaneous came across more as folk-pop than straight folk. One guitar was replaced by a concertina for Dunwich, a hauntingly beautiful song about the small town in Suffolk which has been falling prey to coastal erosion since the 13th century. Raven Mother was based on the German insult, Rabenmutter, for working mothers but I couldn’t hear the lyrics clearly enough to work out whether Helen and Sharon were angry about the term, whether they were being ironic or whether they were simply poking fun at it. The simple guitar work and powerful lyrics of Guns, written about the Columbine school shootings, but just as relevant to those that have happened since, didn’t get the attention they deserved as the swelling crowd also meant increasing background noise. With its lively tone, Shoulder upped the pace a bit, while Witch Song made good use of the girls’ vocals to represent the horror of a woman accused of being a witch during the 1645 trials. Sisterhood, telling the story of women’s rights campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft, ended the set.
Between the songs there was an entertaining line in sometimes self-deprecating humour – “When she was pregnant, we used to play the ‘guess which of us is pregnant’ game. I think I came off quite badly in that.” And the perfect timing of the very funny introduction to Sisterhood simply can’t be reproduced on the printed page. The various themes behind their lyrics may not always be uplifting, but the songs themselves are thought-provoking and, being contemporary in style if not always in content, were certainly more appealing to me than the traditional folk music I have come across. Two may have looked a strange choice of support act, but they certainly entertained my little group and seemed to go down well with a large portion of the whole audience, getting a good reception and seemingly shifting a number of CDs after their set, including a couple to yours truly.
At the beginning of the year, Breathing Space announced that they were splitting up and you could almost hear the sigh of disappointment from their fans. It didn’t take too long for four of the final line-up – Heidi Widdop, Paul Teasedale, Adam Dawson and Barry Cassells – to announce that they were to form a new band, recruiting John Sykes, a past band-mate of Barry, to play keyboards. And so Stolen Earth was born. The band’s first outing was a few weeks ago, at the Cambridge Rock Festival, but tonight is their York launch gig and unsurprisingly the quite large audience features a fair few familiar faces, many of them regular fans of the Mostly Autumn “family” of bands, to which Breathing Space belonged.
Stolen Earth are not, however, Breathing Space resuscitated. Guitar-driven, with Adam alternating between effortless noodling and brash strokes across the strings, rather than keyboard-led they have opted to move away from the proggy ambience of the previous band and towards a rockier sound, the sweeping songs belonging more to the A.O.R. genre, but without the pomp and bombast often associated with that style of music. The new sound is probably better suited to Heidi’s vocals, which are very different to Livvy’s (Breathing Space’s original vocalist). I know that there have been some comments about the sound quality and there were problems with feedback during some parts of the gig. Personally, I thought there was little wrong and was impressed that Heidi’s acoustic guitar could be clearly heard throughout the set. The only “complaint” our group had was that Heidi’s vocals were a little lost in the mix, something which I think was at least partly down to “new song syndrome” – it’s always easier to hear the vocals when the songs are familiar to you and your brain can fill in the gaps.
Tonight’s set, though, was almost totally unfamiliar. Opener I Live begins with a staccato drum beat before bursting into some fairly heavy guitar while Bitterness Fades features a more jangly style with a slightly 60’s feel. Mirror Mirror saw Adam taking over the vocals, appropriately enough seeing as it was one of the tracks on his Lazy Susan single, and had a fantastic sound, with all the instruments coming through. Tuscany Sun is a slower, ballad-like song which, with the help of a video posted on youtube, has already garnered the band airplay on European radio. Unnatural Disaster is, perhaps, the song most like those of Breathing Space (and had already been performed by that band), with its prominent keyboards, fast drum-line and nice guitar and bass solos. With Soul In A Jar, the band edged slightly into Mostly Autumn territory, if only because of the inclusion of some low whistle from Heidi, while Adam started off with an acoustic guitar before moving back to the electric for a rousing middle section leading into John’s lovely ending. My Lips Are Too Dry, which somehow reminded me of both Bon Jovi’s Cowboy and Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again, featured some very strong vocals from Heidi, helped along with a healthy dose of reverb, while Adam came to the fore once again, playing bottleneck guitar during Into The Virgin Snow. A couple of covers followed. The first had us guessing for a while as Adam’s noodling intro seemed to morph around Pink Floyd and The Animals before finally settling into The Eagles’ Hotel California, then Paul switched four strings for twelve for a version of Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Adam took over the vocals again for a reworked version of his own superb and very emotive Silver Skies and the set ended with the epic Perfect Wave, perhaps the proggiest song on show tonight with a nice change of pace at the end and some superb screaming guitar. The obligatory encore was Clear, Paul’s own song from Breathing Space’s third album, showing that the past hasn’t been completely forgotten.
There were a few hints of nervousness during the set – Adam getting “guitar not turned on” and “guitar not plugged in” mixed up and Heidi dropping her guitar while adjusting a mike stand – along with a slight sense of amazement that so many people had turned up to see them, but overall this was a very assured performance by some top class musicians. The demise of Breathing Space may mean that one branch of the Mostly Autumn rock family tree has been trimmed but, from tonight’s showing, it’s obvious that a seed has broken free and is growing into a strong sapling just outside the shadow of the “parent” band.