For the past few years Mostly Autumn’s Christmas gig in their hometown of York has shared the weekend with another gig from a related band. With the demise of both Breathing Space and Stolen Earth, Halo Blind still on hiatus and the apparent natural successor, Cloud Atlas, not yet ready to play live, such a mini-Mostly-fest was looking unlikely for 2013. Until, that is, a semi-acoustic “meet-and-greet” gig, the evening before the main event was announced. And so, tonight’s Fibbers crowd was peppered with familiar faces, more than a few of which would have travelled to York for the weekend. There can’t be many bands where you are as likely to see fans dressed as if they have just come in from a ramble as you are to see them dressed in various tour t-shirts.
Opening proceedings tonight were psych-folk duo Bird To Beast and, I have to admit, I hadn’t realised the connection so just assumed that the enthusiastic reception as Hannah and Sam Hird walked on stage was simply the crowd being friendly. A wordless harmony opened Tides and continued after Sam’s guitar came in, eventually turning into strong vocals, equally nicely-harmonised, for a song that was light but with a darker mid section. Catacombs initially saw the vocals soaring before a sudden change of pace turned the track into something more raucous. The band’s debut single, From Lips To Lungs, was described by Sam as their “Edith Piaf song”. It had a quiet, gentle start but soon turned a fair bit bolder before fading away nicely at the end. Posture And Pantomime opened with just Hannah’s vocals and a chance to hear her properly for the first time. An expressive singer, her hands are rarely still, fluttering around the microphone. Sam had switched from guitar to keyboard and his piano started sparse, building with the song. And what a fantastic song it was. Elephant is the current single and it saw Sam taking lead vocal duties over a kind of rock-and-roll backing from Hannah, making this the liveliest track so far. Explaining that their hometown was Colne in Lancashire, Sam introduced Winter Snow as a song about getting your heart broken while living in a mill town. It was a song whose lyrics, with Sam once again on lead vocals, painted a picture and described a scene, while I could only describe Hannah’s backing vocals as angelic. We were told who Daniel was about and, while I don’t want to announce or confirm it, you have to wonder, with lyrics along the lines of “get out of town before your body is ripped to pieces” what sort of lifestyle they lead. Despite the tone of the lyrics it was musically light, with occasional darker interludes from Sam, back on piano for this, the final song of the set. Described later by Bryan Josh as “the real thing” as he encouraged us to by their album, Bird To Beast provided a nice, slightly unusual opening to the evening and, as you can probably tell, I really enjoyed the vocals.
It was only when, after a short break, Mostly Autumn took to the stage that I realised that Hannah Hird was actually one of the two new band members (at least for this year’s live shows) announced back in May. She is, effectively, the replacement for Anne-Marie Helder, while Alex Cromerty, replaces Gavin Griffiths on drums or, more accurately tonight, cajon and shakers. Tonight’s stage arrangement saw all the band except Iain Jennings seated, Livvy taking centre stage on a high stool with the rest of them scattered around her, some almost hidden from view from where I was standing. This gave a relaxed feel to proceedings, while the opening chat about the band “working through a few things” that afternoon and “you don’t know what you’re going to get and neither do we” hinted that this was to be a slightly unusual performance.
Opening with a version of Changing Fast which, played acoustically, had a kind of swampy-blues sound, it soon became apparent that Hannah’s backing vocals were to continue to provide the same superb harmonies that they had done so well during the support slot. Even though Liam switched to electric guitar for Nowhere To Hide, it was a much gentler version than I am used to, at least in part because of Livvy’s bigger vocal contributions. Bryan switched to electric for Drops Of The Sun and the relaxed atmosphere continued as he, introducing the song, pointed out that four five pound notes will buy you forty cans at a well-known supermarket, his ramblings leading Livvy to wish that she had some of whatever he had been on. This version of the song, when it eventually started, made it easier to pick out the lyrics and harmonies than the rockier electric version. Next Wild Eyed Skies featured mainly keyboards and vocals but also included short bluesy sections from Bryan before he explained that, a songwriters, he and Livvy had nearly got their subjects down to a tee – losing someone, mountains, stars… “Have you done one about beer yet?” asked Livvy to laughter from the crowd. After a promising short instrumental opening, I’m afraid tonight’s version of Second Hand didn’t really work for me. Despite there being a lot, perhaps too much, going on it felt a bit flat and somehow came across as neither acoustic or electric but somewhere between the two. I didn’t see what happened next, but heard the loud noise as Bryan’s microphone crashed to the stage, Livvy jumping off her seat to help right it before a version of Evergreen that allowed the keyboards and backing vocals space in which to shine.
The on-stage chemistry continued as, with Bryan starting to speak, Livvy told him to, “Bog off. This is my song, I’m introducing it.” As if in a huff, he got up and left the stage, apparently gesturing for all but Livvy, Iain and Hannah to follow him, with some of the band listening to a lovely version of The Rain Song, another track with brilliant vocal harmonies, from within the audience. Another recurring theme, this time dying, was poked fun at before Pure White Lights. Again, this one didn’t work for me but this time I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I didn’t recognise the next song (call myself a fan??) but whatever it was it was gentle and sublime. Apparently, Iain’s car had broken down on the way to the venue and he hadn’t had time for any kind of sound check so Bryan suggested that he improvised during Never The Rainbow, playing it honky-tonk style. To be honest, it sounded more jazz-like to me, but not as much as the 70s jazz style that Bryan suggested next and which led to an improvisational interlude between the two of them. Tonight’s version of Passengers, to be honest, didn’t sound that much different to normal, something that couldn’t be said of Questioning Eyes, which retained it’s emotional power despite the acoustic stylings, although Bryan did swap back to electric guitar for the song’s second half. The earlier incident seemed to have resulted in the microphone being in an unusual position on the stand and led to a potentially more embarrassing exchange between Bryan and Livvy, as he likened its upward slant to himself after a few beers. Again, the audience lapped up the banter although I’m not sure how many spotted the (I assume) unintentional euphemism from Livvy as she referred to Bryan’s “old fella” during the introduction to Heroes Never Die, a song which Liam’s twelve-string guitar gave an unusual back-drop to. As it finished Bryan asked if anybody had the time and was told that it was after ten thirty. Apparently, the band were supposed to leave the stage at ten and mingle with the crowd. Personally, I preferred hearing the music (and the banter) and was happy to hear one more, a cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here that saw the audience singing along.
As the last note faded I made a quick exit, wanting to avoid the hordes – both the expected nightclub crowd (which, I’m told, never materialised) and what was left of the meet and greet – and avoid turning into a gibbering fan.