…and rarely have I been looking forward so much to a gig by a band that I have heard just two tracks from.
According to the Duchess website, tonight’s support comes from the Heather Findlay Duo. I’m not sure how Chris Johnson, the other half of the duo, is meant to take that, especially given that he write half the songs played during tonight’s set (and two of those originally had no connection to Heather) but I guess somebody maybe has to be in the ascendancy. Most of the songs played tonight came from the Live At The Cafe 68 album that the duo, billed as Heather Findlay & Chris Johnson on the cover, officially release in the next few days, but which has been available for purchase since shortly after that gig. It was my favourite live album of last year and I’m pleased to say that, despite tonight’s being a shorter set, a lot of my favourite tracks are still featured. It’s a nice mix of songs from Heather’s Phoenix Suite EP (Phoenix and Running Man) and Odin Dragonfly album (Magpie), Chris’s bands The Evernauts (Out Of Season) and Parade/Halo Blind (The Dogs) and Mostly Autumn (Yellow Time, Blue Light and Silver Glass) all of which are simply accompanied by Chris on guitar and Heather on a variety of shakers and, for Silver Glass, a handheld xylophone. Heather’s voice is crystal-clear and there is an easy camaraderie between the two of them. Best song of the set is The Dogs, which retains it’s evilness even as a stripped-down acoustic track, but the whole set is entertainingly pleasant, if not with quite the intimacy that comes across from the live album.
As an aside, there were a lot of familiar faces in the crowd which wasn’t quite as large as I expected it to be tonight. While it’s nice to see a core group of prog-rock fans who seem, like me, to try to attend all York prog gig, I can’t help but think that some of these bands deserve bigger attendances. Tonight’s gig was, for the headliners, just one of three that they are playing in the near future and was billed by Classic Rock magazine as the gig of the week. (There was even at least one of the magazine’s staff in attendance, which might help deflect recent criticism that gig reviews in sister magazine, Prog, are too London-focussed.) Even so, I wonder if it would have received that acclaim and how many of those who travelled would have done so if Heather hadn’t been supporting.
The headliners were, in fact, Touchstone a five-piece “Progressive(ish) Rock” band from Hertfordshire and this was their first visit to York. They had already released two studio and one live albums, as well as an EP before signing to Steamhammer / SPV for last year’s The City Sleeps (and reissues of all but the live album released just this week). Despite that reasonably large back catalogue, the only exposure I had had to the band was a couple of track released on CDs issued free with Prog magazine. Still, I know what there’s a good chance I’ll like and so had no hesitation in attending tonight’s gig.
Initial impressions were that the music was quite a bit heavier than I expected but without the darkness that can sometimes encroach into heavy-prog. It also seemed that Kim Seviour’s vocals and Rob Cottingham’s backing vocals were being swamped by the music, but that was almost certainly due to my unfamiliarity of the material, especially given that the vocals during Joker In The Pack (one of the two tracks that I had heard) sounded lot clearer. Having said that, the much quieter introduction to the first song of the encore also allowed the vocals to come through a lot more. However, live music isn’t always about the vocals and I was really enjoying the music. Few songs were granted introductions, although there was still a bit of chat between songs, and I doubt my memory is good enough to work out which they were by listening to the full back catalogue I bought on the night (which, even as a bundle package, broke my record for amount spent on CDs at a gig..) so you will have to forgive my vagueness. One of the things that struck me was how drummer Henry Rogers managed to convey power without being overpowering but, at the same, time, seemed to be playing with inordinate ease and working with Moo (bass) to provide much more than just a rhythm backing to the set. The band’s progressive leanings became more than evident during the third song which started with an incredibly heavy introduction which was counterpointed by Kim’s lighter vocals. It was short, sharp and punchy and, if I’m honest, I have no idea whether it continued or segued into a new song after a solo keyboard section. Whatever happened, it was very effective and gave us a song (or songs) which was powerful enough to end the set of a lesser band. But by now, we were only half an hour in and the band had really seemed to warm up and Kim was owning the stage, wandering about and interacting with the musicians as well, as dancing and posing around the stage. More progressiveness followed with another heavy start leading into a sublimely light and stunning instrumental section, with Kim leaving the stage for a short while. Guitarist Adam Hodgson apparently brings the heavy influence to Touchstone, having previously being in hard-rock bands, but When Shadows Fall, one of the few songs to be introduced, reminded me a lot of Rush, especially in the guitar work. “This song is about people who aren’t very nice and what I’d like to say to them,” said Kim, with a kind of feisty innocence, peering out from beneath her striking red fringe. The set ended with the epic The City Sleeps before the band returned for a two song encore, which included the previously mentioned quieter track before ending the evening with the anthemic rock of Look Me In The Eyes.
I’ve seen a lot of the prog-bands that have visited York in recent years, including most of the bigger femme-fronted ones, but I have to say that tonight has jumped straight into the top five of all gigs I have seen in our fair city. To put that into context, I see somewhere between thirty and forty gigs a year and have done for somewhere in the region of five years. That’s somewhere near one hundred and seventy-five gigs. Admittedly, touring bands are a bit more prevalent in my gig-going than local bands are at the moment but it is rare that a new discovery has the intensity and complexity of music that grabs me as much as Touchstone did tonight. I was expecting to like them, I wasn’t expecting to be totally blown away. I can only hope that the band return soon.