I sometimes get the feeling that Mostly Autumn’s annual Christmas concert at the Grand Opera House is a sort of “comfort” gig for both the band and the audience. For most of the former, it’s a hometown appearance, with an audience which seems to consist largely of long-term fans and more than a few friends (and family). For the audience, or at least some of those who review the gigs (and who, collectively, travel hundreds of miles to see the band at various venues), there almost seems to be a lack of expectation – not that they will put up with any old dross (and not that they would get that) but that, somehow, the band can be forgiven if the performance isn’t quite up to the standard of other gigs on the tour. From a personal point of view, I only ever see them play York so can’t compare the performances, but for the last few years the gigs, with their Christmas song finales, have formed an integral part of my festive season. Oh, and it’s one of the few gigs I go to that is completely seated so, arguments about the merits of seated gigs over standing ones notwithstanding, that makes it a bit more comfortable as well.
This year, I had offered Elizabeth – my nine-year-old daughter – the option of coming along to what was to be her first full-length gig (beating my record by about six years) and, being a girl of varied and, for the most part, very good musical taste, she readily accepted.
With no studio album to promote this year (although the new live album – Still Beautiful 2011, which contains much of the set from tonight, taken from a performance earlier in the year – was promoted quite heavily) the set list had been tinkered with to present a sort of “best of” tour using material from the full thirteen year history of the band.
The set opened with the ambient instrumental Distant Train before launching into Answer The Question, which gave us our first taste of Livvy’s vocals. Last year I commented that I thought she had yet to hit her stride in the live performance. This time around she was, for the most part, quite simply stunning. Vocally stronger and looking a lot more relaxed – “She’s having a good time, “ pointed out Elizabeth as she watch Livvy smiling and dancing around the stage – as well as throwing the odd quip Bryan’s way and appearing a lot more comfortable (there’s that word again) with the audience, she seemed to own the stage a lot more than last year. Evergreen followed, again showing how much improved Livvy’s vocals were but also highlighting the incredible job Anne-Marie Helder does as backing vocalist. The more macho Deep In Borrowdale and Something Better, with Bryan taking over lead vocals, changed the tone of the set for a while but the former still showcased Livvy towards the end. Then it was back to Livvy for an impassioned rendition of Passengers. (I realise that I seem to be going overboard on Livvy’s vocals, but that’s an indication of, to me anyway, how much she had improved since the last time I saw her perform.) The set continued with the brilliant Ice, my personal favourite from the last album, which gave Iain Jennings, on the keyboards, a chance to shine then moved on to The Last Climb, which saw Anne-Marie front and centre for a lovely flute solo. Questioning Eyes, previously a Breathing Space song and a very personal one for Livvy provided a powerful end to the first half of the evening.
By this time, it was obvious that Elizabeth was flagging a bit, despite it being nowhere near her normal Saturday evening bedtime. An ice cream was a reward for her being dragged along to the merchandise stall so that I could pick up a copy of the latest album and she promised that she would try to stay awake for the second half, which started with Fading Colours and continued with Caught In A Fold, The Dark Before The Dawn and Nowhere To Hide. Then Bryan announced Spirits Of Autumn Past, before leaving the stage to allow the band’s unsung hero, Liam Davison to open the track with a wonderfully varied guitar piece, alternating between crashing power and delicate intricacy. “You should buy his album, it’s incredible,” extolled Bryan as he returned to the stage for the main part of the track. I have and I agree, it is. The somewhat overblown Go Well Diamond Heart followed and, once again, the dedication to our fighting forces was greeted with applause. Half The Mountain was followed by Hold The Sun and by now Elizabeth was actually nodding off – twitching at any loud bits of songs and waking up to applaud what she had only heard in dreams. I’m fairly certain that her sleepiness was nothing to do with the performance, which was superb. The set drew to a close with The Last Bright Light, Forever Young, which again brought forth a powerful performance from Livvy, and And When The War Is Over…
I managed to rouse Elizabeth for the encore which began with the band’s anthemic Heroes Never Die. Livvy, with just Iain on keyboards, then performed a beautiful version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow before the whole band donned red cowboy hats for the traditional Christmas ending, this year trimmed to just one song – I Believe In Father Christmas – due to the earliness of the gig. “We couldn’t get a gig here in December due to the pantomines,” complained Bryan.
I started by saying that I felt that expectations are never that high for this gig. Whatever the audience expected this year, they were treated to the best Grand Opera House performance that this relatively new fan has seen. (This was my fourth such gig.) The set was brilliantly put together, containing old and new favourites and a nicely varied mix of songs and the band not only played superbly but looked as though they were having a good time. Everything seemed to gel and the interaction with the audience – whether it was Bryan’s delightfully rambling stories behind the songs or Livvy’s more succinct introductions – was spot on. Add tonight to the blisteringly good performance from Heather Findlay last night and you get one of the best Mostly mini-festivals that I can remember.
And, thankfully, Elizabeth tells me that she enjoyed it as well, despite missing out on getting Bryan’s hat by just two people.