It’s become a bit of a tradition. I’ve seen the Mostly Autumn Christmas gig at York’s Grand Opera House every year since 2008 and, for the last couple of years, Elizabeth has gone with me. It has become known as our annual “Dad and daughter” gig and, from my point of view, it’s interesting to see how her experience has changed since 2011 when, as a nine-year-old, she ended up falling asleep towards the end (waking up between songs to applaud) and last year, when she managed to stay awake but had to be cajoled into standing up for the end of show Christmas songs.
This, her third such gig, was the first time there had been a support act but she was already aware that I was a big fan of Blues guitarist Chantel McGregor, whose career I have followed from cover versions played in The Roman Bath, through headline gigs at Fibbers and The Duchess (none this year, but back in York in 2014) and, now, one of a handful of support slots for Mostly Autumn. It might sound like a step backwards but, for a young woman who has been collecting awards for the past two or three years, this was a chance to increase her fan base (and I saw a few copies of her debut album – Like No Other – being bought after her set had finished). Chantel herself seemed pleased to be there, proclaiming that it was, “lovely to be back in York, especially somewhere so posh,” before starting her set with a cover of Joe Bonamassa’s Bridge To Better Days, during which she was nearly obscured from view by a slightly over-zealous smoke machine. Musically brilliant, perhaps the most endearing things about Chantel’s performances is the fact that she is both still very grounded in her Yorkshire roots and, let’s be honest, can also come across as the very epitome of her hair colour. Tonight’s self-admitted “blonde” moment came just before the title track of the album, when she managed to head-butt her microphone. The less-bluesy, more-pop-diva Fabulous, saw her fingers flying across the frets and was followed by one of her trademark “Ta”’s – finally! With all the “Thank you”’s I was beginning to think she’d gone a bit posh – and then, “Let’s do summat you know”, which turned out to be the usual superb version of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child performed, in places, with an air of coyness during the vocals and, yet, seriousness during the blistering guitar sections. A change of guitar was required for the rockier Caught Out, a track which featured an incredible rhythm section from Richard Ritchie (bass) and her drummer (whose name, I’m ashamed to say, I can’t remember) in the middle. Chantel plays barefoot and, after telling us how lovely the glitter-covered stage looked, thought we might be able to see the glitter on the bottom of her feet, before realising how dirty they were. And it wasn’t just feet… Help Me, which saw featured an incredibly dirty bass-line. Replacing the earlier coyness with something more akin to smouldering, Chantel played a lovely guitar/bass duel with Ritchie towards the end of the song. “We’re going to one more. There might be two. It depends on how much widdling there is,” she announced before leaving the audience, ahem, spellbound with a version of a Robin Trower song whose name escapes me… It featured extended and impressive “widdling” and so, unfortunately, there was no time for any more. At the end of the too-short set, Elizabeth declared that it had been “awesome” and dragged me off to the merchandise table, more interested in buying (and getting signed) a calendar than her usual ice-cream.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer. I have seen, elsewhere, comments about this gig and how it, perhaps, wasn’t as good as it could have been, mainly for one particular reason. I’m not going to explain (it’s not my place to), nor am I going to say where I saw these comments, except that it was from more than one source. Some people who were at this gig might wonder why I make no mention of the situation. The simple fact is, I didn’t notice – whether that is through musical ignorance or because I watched the gig through rose-coloured spectacles (deliberately or not) or whether it was just that we were sitting too far back from the stage to spot what seems to have been obvious to others, I’m not sure and I’ll let you decide. What follows is solely from the notes I took.
One by one, the members of Mostly Autumn took to the stage to a backing track of Celtic choral music. Alex Cromarty was first to take his place, providing a solid drum background as the rest of the band appeared, culminating in a huge cheer when Livvy arrived and the whole band launched into Winter Mountain during which the three vocalists were immediately and distinctly obvious. Drops Of The Sun followed without a break and Hannah’s backing vocals were, if anything, better than the previous evening, adding an extra layer to Livvy’s section of the song. As with the previous night, Hannah’s hands were rarely still, often fluttering around her microphone as she sang. The opening of Unquiet Tears saw Bryan and Andy leave the stage temporarily. Parts of Iain’s keyboard section were so deep as to appear distorted, seeming to rattle the theatre. Without a new album to promote (one is, apparently, due next year) this was another “best of” gig. Simple Ways was followed by Changing Fast which, in turn, lead straight into Evergreen, Bryan making the transition from the end of the rockier track to the gentler opening of the latter with apparent ease. “I love this song,” declared Elizabeth as it started and the end had some of the audience on their feet. Livvy and Iain alone started The Rain Song, Iain’s keys sounding like the titular weather. Once again, the vocal harmonies were lovely but there was also a faint sound (akin to a phone chime) in the background, which was slightly off-putting. I had noticed it the night before and assumed it was an audience members phone but it seems it was part of the song that I don’t remember hearing before.
Bryan himself took the spotlight, accompanied by the rhythm section of Andy and Alex, for the opening of Slow Down, from his (so far) only solo album. Deep In Borrowdale led straight into Never The Rainbow, a powerhouse of a track which allowed each individual to shine, and then Nowhere To Hide. Wild-Eyed Skies saw Bryan opening over a sound of water or rain, then Iain’s keyboards came in before Livvy’s incredible vocals. If any still harboured doubts over her ability to front the band, this song should have well and truly dispelled them. Passengers and Questioning Eyes saw the set draw to a close, but the, “Thank you and good night” had nobody fooled, with arguably the band’s signature track not yet played, let alone the fact that this was the Christmas gig.
The inevitable encore started with Heroes Never Die, which saw Alex bouncing in his seat during the instrumental section. Then the start of the Christmas section was signalled by the lighting of the fairy lights which adorned Livvy’s microphone. Iain and Livvy performed a captivating, beautiful version of O Holy Night. (Thanks to Elizabeth for providing me with the title as I hurriedly noted down lyrics to look up later…) As the rest of the band returned to the stage, the festive hats were distributed among them, prompting the comment that, having spent the year in the garage, they now smelled of petrol. The audience took to their feet for I Believe In Father Christmas and this time Elizabeth needed no prompting. “Stay stood up, because you won’t want to sit down for the next twelve minutes,” said Bryan before Liam made his way to the front of the stage, telling us that he hadn’t had time to change and was going to have to do it on stage before removing his shirt to reveal a leather waistcoat and regaling us with his version of Merry Christmas Everybody. Chris Redhouse made a guest appearance on saxophone during I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day and Hannah was even given a small lead vocal section before, mirroring the beginning of the evening, the band left the stage, one by one, to the refrain of “when the snowman brings the snow” until just Livvy and Hannah were left, eventually leaving together.
So, was this a good Mostly Autumn gig? Yes, from my point of view, I would say so, although I would also say that it was in no way their best. Elizabeth seems to appreciate the music more and more each year and, while it was very similar to last year’s equivalent gig, it was enjoyable. I would still prefer to see the band in a proper venue (by which I mean “not a theatre”, such as The Duchess, earlier this year) or doing something slightly different, like the acoustic gig the night before. But that’s not going to stop me enjoying this annual event. The departure of Anne-Marie Helder means that there was no flute section tonight and I did miss it. Having said that, though, Hannah’s backing vocals are incredibly impressive. Perhaps the biggest thing that was missing tonight, though, was a feeling of chemistry on stage. Perhaps it was just that we had been spoilt a bit by the relaxed feeling of the previous night.