While Kate Bush was filling the Hammersmith Apollo and, I assume quite rightly, receiving plaudits from fans, celebrities and critics alike, York’s Vesper Walk were quietly working on their own piece of musical theatre, albeit on a much smaller scale and in a more compact venue. A venue which, when we arrived, had already filled up nicely with an audience that seemed, at first glance, to include a number of people very much getting into the spirit of things, some sporting swirling eye make-up and another dressed “in costume”, complete with long black lace gloves. Of course, if I’d been paying more attention I would have realised that the latter was cellist Lucy Charnock and, if I’d put two and two together, I would have worked out that the former were the dancers promised in the build up to tonight’s gig.
Performing as a full band, rather than the trio that I last saw them as, Catherine Cowan, Lisa-Marie Baker and Lucy were joined on stage by Kieran O’Malley (violin), Alex Staples (bass), Edward Simpson (percussion) and Amie Robertson (backing vocals) for a set that comprised of a run-through of all six tracks from the Fallen Angel EP being launched tonight, as well as one other song – in which the opener’s titular Auntie Sarah made a return – and a cover of Fall Out Boy’s My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark. Before starting the set Catherine thanked us all for coming, welcomed us to the girls’ folktale land of dark corners and implored us to stick around because there was to be a “happy ending… sort of”. The set itself, opening with a recording of a child reciting a nursery rhyme, flowed seamlessly from song to song, with little interaction from the girls. Adding to the four-hand piano playing and theatrical, harmonised lead vocals, Simpson’s cajon gave the music a darker sound while Amie’s backing vocals lent it an even more ethereal, lighter tone. The at times slightly macabre lyrics, the three girls leaping, pirouetting and slipping into the splits at the front of the stage together with, at various points during the set, the addition of a string puppet, a lace mask, a vintage toy piano and antlered headbands, gave the impression that the whole thing was a concept piece, a fairy tale in its raw, unsanitised form or, perhaps, a story by the likes of Neil Gaiman or Charles de Lint set to music and dance. A quirky, beautifully performed set of songs which held the audience in spellbound appreciation and proved that Vesper Walk are one of York’s most original bands.
Dan Webster, somebody I had heard a lot about but hadn’t managed to see before, was also launching an EP tonight – The Sea And Other Things – and he also played all of the tracks from it during his set. At one point, just before playing Spanish Ladies, a traditional British navy song, he described himself as a folk singer but, without wanting to denigrate the genre, that almost did him an injustice. Real-life songs such as Frank Dalton and Fishing, both of which are based on relatives, were delivered with an intensity and a passion that can be lacking in some acoustic performers while the more political Price, played as a solo and born out of frustration at recent events, was delivered in a simple and yet emotional way. Away from Price, Dan was joined by Yom Hardy on drums, Mark Waters on bass and Rachel Brown on cello, with guest appearances from Adrian Spendlow who, before the song of the same name, narrated a powerful poem telling the story of Frank Dalton, a lifeboatman who died during a rescue, and Alistair Lawrence on piano. It wasn’t all serious stuff – one song, inspired by a drunken Facebook status about a lost phone, had an almost rock and roll vibe while Elvis was a humorous take on Dan’s other job as a covers act, the light-heartedness only added to by Spendlow deciding to dance along to it. The ballad-like Caroline somehow brought to mind Joshua Kadison while his encore, a cover of Dylan’s Rock Me Mama, was a welcome return for one of my favourite live songs.