Mostly Autumn – The Grand Opera House, 06/12/12

Photos included in this posting were taken by Marc McGarraghy, who is on a year long project to generate donations for MacMillan Cancer Support from his live music photography. More details can be found on his fundraising community Facebook Page.

Mostly Autumn’s Christmas gig at the Grand Opera House in York is turning into, it seems, the annual “Dad and daughter” gig as Elizabeth, showing great taste in music for one so young, decided to accompany me for the second time, even after falling asleep during the second half last year.

There seemed to be a few other regular attendees missing from the crowd, perhaps due to the fact that it was a Thursday. For the past few years there has been a kind of mini-Mostly Autumn festival in York, with the main gig taking place on a Friday or Saturday and other, related bands, booking gigs on the other day (and, once, on the Sunday afternoon as well), giving fans an excuse to spend the weekend in York. Stolen Earth did play a gig the next evening but, having the main event on Thursday would have meant an extra day off work for most travelling fans.

As last year, the gig started with the instrumental Distant Train, with just Bryan Josh (guitar and vocals), Iain Jennings (keyboards) and Anne-Marie Helder (keyboards and flute) on stage, slowly being joined by Andy Smith (bass), Gavin Griffiths (drums), Liam Davison (guitars). Eventually, lead-singer Olivia Sparnenn appeared – her black dress, both figure-hugging and diaphanous, and silver headband giving her an ethereal Galadriel-in-mourning look – and the band played Unquiet Tears and King Of The Valley, both from this year’s new album The Ghost Moon Orchestra, before diving into the back catalogue with Never The Rainbow and Evergreen, the latter which I unfortunately missed due to Elizabeth suddenly needing to, ahem, leave her seat for a while….

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Livvy Sparnenn

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We made it back in time to hear Bryan introduce The Last Climb which, as usual, featured a lovely flute solo from Anne-Marie. Next came a song which I think was Changing Fast, from the Weather For Poets bonus CD that came with the special edition of the new album. The first set ended with Livvy’s own Questioning Eyes, a very personal song which she dedicated to her sister for a recent “special” birthday.

The second half started with The Dark Before The Dawn, from The Last Bright Light (my personal favourite MA album) before heading back to the latest release with Drops Of The Sun. Two songs from Go Well Diamond Heart Deep In Borrowdale and the brilliant Ice – bookended a superb version of Passengers, then it was back to the new album again with Wild Eyed Skies. Gavin made a brief (and extremely rare) excursion from behind his drum kit for a nice new, more acoustic arrangement of Pure White Light, during which he sat on and played an old speaker. The Last Bright Light was followed by  two of Bryan’s personal songs – Heroes Never Die, written about his father and new song Tonight, about his uncle – both prompted by loss but both about celebrating life.

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Bryan Josh and Andy Smith

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After a brief exchange at the start of the encore with a woman in the audience who was trying to encourage the rest of us to stand up (I’m not sure whether she had drunk too much but she was trying to suggest that people shouldn’t act “old” at gigs and, while Bryan agreed, he explained that the next song was laid back and they would only have to sit down again when it started….) we were treated to Top Of The World, which does indeed start in a laid back manner but also included the best instrumental section of the night. Then, as is traditional at this gig, Christmas hats and covers of festive songs made an appearance and the crowd finally did take to their feet. Livvy reappeared on stage in a much shorter white dress (and, thigh-length shiny red boots) to sing I Believe In Father Christmas before the band launched into Fairytale Of New York which saw them joined on stage by Heather Findlay (a surprise to me as I had spotted her in the audience during the break but, sitting further forward than her, hadn’t seen her leave her seat) for a cheekily impassioned performance during which she and Livvy shared the female vocals sections. Finally, Liam, took over vocal duties for Merry Christmas Everybody.

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Heather Findlay and Livvy Sparnenn

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This was the fifth time I had seen Mostly Autumn at the Grand Opera House and it is by far the best. Livvy is now completely assured both on stage and with her vocals. Songs such as Changing Fast, with it’s harder, rockier chorus, show that she can match Bryan for power and, especially during Ice, her smile simply lit up the stage. There seemed to be less banter this time around, both from Livvy and Bryan (although the latter did still give us his spiel about Christmas during the encore) but that didn’t detract from the feeling that this annual hometown gig holds a special place in the band’s collective heart. Hearing the songs from the new album mixed in with older material drives home just how much heavier and rockier some of them are compared to the older stuff, especially as performed live – Drops Of The Sun, for example, bereft of Troy Donockley’s Uillleann pipes, opens instead with rubbed guitar strings over almost doom-laden keyboards. Tonight’s light show was spectacular, its vivid and vibrant colours providing a superb backdrop and easily the best I’ve seen at this venue. One thing I have come to realise is that music is a very visual experience for me. By that I mean that I can pick out individual performances more easily if I can see the individual performer. Tonight was the first time I have been seated so as to be able to see Anne-Marie clearly at her keyboards and this meant that I was more easily able to pick out and appreciate her backing vocal sections. She was particularly impressive during Questioning Eyes.

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Heather, Bryan and Livvy

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One thing that does annoy me at MA gigs is that I always seem to get seated near to somebody who, at some point, will come out with a snide comment. Not loud enough to be classed as heckling, but clearly audible to those sitting around them. Tonight, as Bryan introduced Heroes Never Die, one person behind me quipped, “Get over it, Bryan.” While I, personally, find that bordering disrespectful, given why the song was written and what it means to Bryan, I also find it strange that there seems to be a section of the fanbase who don’t like it. I freely admit that it is one of my favourite MA songs and would no sooner want them to drop it from the set as I would, for example, want Led Zeppelin to drop Stairway To Heaven, Deep Purple Smoke On The Water or Lynyrd Skynyrd Freebird. Thankfully, as usual, the song was followed by extended applause from the audience.

Oh, yes, and Elizabeth managed to stay awake for the whole gig this year.

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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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