Marck Whiley (or, as he introduced himself tonight, Marck CK) was a late stand-in for Aimie Ryan who had to pull out of tonight’s gig due to illness. Coming on stage to the view seen by many support acts – the main floor empty with the sparse crowd dotted around the edges, at the bar or still seated – his soft-spoken invitation for people to move forward was almost immediately countered by an admission that his songs aren’t really for dancing to, so we might be more comfortable staying where we were. It’s been quite a while since I last saw Marck perform and, in the past, I’ve been open in that I didn’t know what to make of him, finding some of his songs too miserablist for my tastes and, while enjoying others, not really finding too many that engaged with me. Maybe it was the fact that it featured songs usually performed by his band (The Rodeo Falls, who I haven’t seen yet) but I enjoyed tonight’s set a lot more than those of the past. Opener In For A Pound grew steadily as it went on, appropriate for a song about the sunrise, before fading into a gentle end. Best Laid Plans was, if anything, even gentler and slightly sad (but not miserable) and then he introduced Long Distance Runner as The Rodeo Falls’ “big Coldplay epic”. A strong guitar section opens it before Marck’s soft vocals come in and build throughout the song, with the added interest of a quieter guitar section in the middle. Switching guitars (and plugging the new one as a make that “blows the rest out of the water”) he introduced Pepper Potts as being about Iron Man’s girlfriend. This time a slow start preceded something much more up tempo. A very frank and open introduction to Five Bar Gate gave the audience a small insight into Marck’s past. The song itself, after a sparse start, featured a very strong midsection and increased in tempo throughout until, once again, fading to a minimal ending. Everybody Watching You with, for the most part, a simple riff featured a faster, more complex, instrumental midsection before the set ended with Put On Silver. Definitely the most interesting song of the set, it saw Marck hold one note for what seemed to be longer than I could comfortably hold my breath. All the songs featured vocals as clear as they can be when playing to an almost empty room. Almost poles apart from my own memories of earlier performances, this one was engaging and interesting. My only complaint was that Marck didn’t do his near-trademark performance of one song unplugged and in the audience.
After the briefest of changeovers, 16-year-old Callum Rafferty took to the stage. Callum is supporting Emma Stevens on three dates of her tour and, personally, I think York was lucky to see him. Appearing slightly nervous while introducing himself (and throughout the set – most songs were introduced along the lines of “here’s a song I wrote called… I hope you like it” and he twice announced that he had just two songs left) there was no denying his talent. Setting himself up with two mics, a keyboard, guitar and loop station, he proceeded to create backing tracks live on stage both by looping the instruments and wordless vocals. Throughout the set the vocals and lyrics belied his years. His own Do You Remember was followed by a cover of No Diggity (Blackstreet featuring Dr Dre) and then a track whose title I didn’t catch which saw him discard the guitar, after looping it, in favour of the keyboard. The technology being used didn’t once overpower the performance and Callum even took time out before Speak Now to explain to any uninitiated in the crowd what he was doing. Speak Now itself saw him add guitar percussion into the mix for the first notable time. The next two songs, the second of which was Forever And Ever, were gentler, simpler and quieter with the technology not so much in evidence. The set ended with a mash-up of Tonight’s The Night and Ed Sheeran’s You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, its tongue-twisting lyrics and Callum’s playing providing an epic finish to a very entertaining set.
“I’m surprised you all managed to fit in here,” commented Emma Stevens as she took to the stage, an ironic reference to the still small audience, although she later admitted that the size of crowd doesn’t bother her. Looking simply gorgeous in a black dress and hipster Ray Bans she opened, on ukulele, with Once, a lively song which got things off to a foot-tapping start and during which her vocals were complemented by backing vocals from the rest of the band – Sam Whiting (electric guitar), Pete Snowdon (bass) and James Rees-Flynn (drums, keyboards). Like all the best artistes, Emma interacts with her audience, explaining the inspiration or meaning between songs. Swapping the ukulele for an acoustic guitar she explained that How To Write A Love Song, a much slower song, was inspired by a past boyfriend who dumped her on her birthday. She then asked the York crowd to provide an entry for a montage of “Boo”s that she was putting together for him and we were only too happy to oblige. This Is For You, inspired by the fact that people in her hometown seem to smile less than people elsewhere, was the first song she wrote with Pete Woodroffe (producer of Emma’s debut album Enchanted). It is lively again, with the music seeming to quietly explode in places. The audience, so eager to please a few minutes ago, seem more reluctant during a sing-along section in Give A Little Bit, perhaps because even with a couple of practises before the song starts, it’s not the easiest participation section I have come across. There is a slight 60s Motown feel to the song and each band member gets a small section to highlight their craft, with James performing both keyboard and drum solos. Admitting that she expected a longer time on stage and is having to cut the prepared set due to having to finish at the ten thirty curfew, Emma asks the audience whether we want something up-tempo or ballad. We opt for the former, to the surprise of Sam, and get Underwater, with its lovely atmospheric opening, Lazy – inspired by a period last October which saw Emma enjoying being busy but which left her tired – and then the lively The Simple Things, written after Emma had given up her part time job to concentrate on her music. It was a joyful song, with lyrics reflecting on what is important at such times:
It’s the simple things / I really need
Like watching you asleep / And listening to you breathe
It’s the simple things / That set me free
Playin’ guitar on the beach / ‘til the Summer’s out of reach
There’s another audience participation section, this one much simpler and more eagerly joined in. A perfect four-part acapella opening precedes Hey Summer! another joyful song. The genuine smile that had been a constant throughout the set so far was replaced by something more akin to anguish during Sunflower. This was written shortly after Emma lost her Mum two years ago. Starting with just Emma on guitar and vocals, with the band soon providing backing vocals and then coming in fully, it is a beautiful ballad that both celebrates what her Mum taught her and also explains how it felt to lose her:
You told me / Sunflowers stare at the Sun
And how the Milky Way / Is the galaxy called home
I thought the moon was a crescent / But you showed me I was wrong
But where should this sunflower stare / Now that you’re gone?
Returning to the ukulele, Emma explained that she always has to follow Sunflower with the happiest song in the set. A Place Called You opens just like a ballad but when the ukulele and whistling comes in, you simply can’t help feeling happy. The too short set is ended with Riptide, a great big, bouncy song which had previously had national radio airplay and had been an iTunes single of the week. It was finished with a big instrumental section and, as Emma went to put down her guitar, the audience started the shouts for more. Deciding against going off stage, Emma instead opts for an instant encore of Happy, a very appropriate title given the near constant smile she has worn throughout the evening.
Throughout the evening, part of Emma’s first headline tour (she has played Fibbers before, but I hadn’t been aware of her until recently) we have been treated to some brilliantly joyful pop – folk-pop, if you like – sung by a young lady with an incredibly pure voice and huge smile and backed by a band who not only obviously enjoyed performing but provided some lovely harmonies with their backing vocals and gave the songs room to breathe, providing an unobtrusive backing to the performance, while still being given occasional room at the fore. The only downsides? A banjo sitting sadly unused on stage and, not unusual for York, a much smaller audience than the music deserved. Still, smaller audiences mean more chance to chat at the merchandise desk. Emma came out after the show to sign CDs and give everybody hugs and thanks for turning up to see her. A lovely lady on and off stage.