Originally set up to create a city centre music festival with just three weeks notice, the people behind York’s Little Festival of Live Music have continued to put on events and tonight saw them marking their first birthday with the first of two nights of acoustic music at The Black Swan pub in Peasholme Green. Once again there were two aims – to showcase some of the fantastic talent that York has to offer (having whittled down the ten of so acts appearing this weekend from over two hundred that applied) and to raise money for charity, with the small entry fee, along with anything dropped into collection boxes, going to IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Services).
This was my first visit to The Black Swan for a gig but it was little surprise that the upstairs room where they put music on is, character-wise, little different from the rest of the pub. Dark wood panelling lines the walls, the windows are leaded and a faux medieval tapestry hangs behind the stage area. Two large speakers, a soundboard and a few coloured lights look slightly incongruous in such a setting. It’s not a particularly big room and that helped make this evening feel a bit more intimate than the usual gig settings. The audience was up close to and very respectful of the acts and that seemed to bring out something extra in all of them as well. Somehow the whole evening felt a bit personal. My only complaint would be that the lines of chairs were very close together which made it difficult to move about.
Although I had seen all of this evenings acts perform before (and it will come as no surprise that I liked them all) I had only seen three of them as guests during other people’s sets, so was looking forward to seeing them in their own styles.
First up was Leo James Conroy. “I used to go by Leo James,” he explained partway through his set, “but there was another one. So I decided to use my full name. I’m not even the first Leo James Conroy…” If you Google him, he’s the one that isn’t dead. Playing after busking with his band on the streets of York for four hours and with another gig looming later that evening, he tailored his set to get the high notes out the way, mixing covers by the likes of The White Stripes and Arctic Monkeys with his own material, all performed in his own unique way. That way included changes in pitch and tone and wordless sections incorporating vocal gymnastics and facial contortions which changed the originals almost to the point of non-recognition. Re-inventions rather than covers. Admitting to being a depressing guy, he explained that his first original, I Only Pray When I’m Desperate, was a bit of a “confession” song. Another original, My Dear, was written for a good friend who died young. It had light opening for such a sad song. Ray Lamontagne inspired Leo to start singing, so it is appropriate that Trouble finds its way into the set. Afterwards, he decides to lighten the mood a bit with another cover, this time Madonna’s Like A Virgin. So much for getting the high notes out of the way early on. Another cover – James Vincent McMorrow’s lovely and somehow old-fashioned We Don’t Eat – and then he announces, with a smile, “I’m sick of this song.” Perhaps not the best way to sell his version of Niles Barkley’s Crazy, which closes the set and during which a very deep section brings forth laughter from the audience. Depressing? Not really. Definitely entertaining, though.
Rachel Croft is one of those that I had only seen providing guest vocals and my first thought as she prepared for he set tonight was that she owns an absolutely beautiful guitar, lighter in colour than most, with a lovely wave pattern underneath the varnish. She’s good friends with Leo and, “It’s quite a task following on,” she almost sighed, before kicking off with a cover of Eva Cassidy’s Fields Of Gold, proving that she had a voice that could match that guitar. Asking for some reverb on her vocals, she moved on to Hear Me, the first original song she ever showed to anyone. (“Because,” she said, “the previous ones were shocking.”) A self-confessed fan of Irish and Scottish folk Rachel seemed to add an Irish lilt to her vocals during a song that was lovely both musically and lyrically. A cover of Wonderful World was followed by one of Mary Black’s Song For Ireland. I don’t know the original but Rachel’s lilt was back for a song that paints delightful pictures. The Celtic influences showed through during her next original, the wistful Old Climbing Tree and confirmed by the next cover, Robert Burns’ My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose, although they were ditched completely for a cover of Beyonce’s Halo – “It doesn’t fit in the set but I like singing it” – before being brought right to the fore again when Rachel played one of her favourite Eva Cassidy songs and, in doing so, taught me a link between Cassidy and Fleetwood Mac that I probably should already have known. Until tonight I had no idea that the Songbird the former is well known for is the same song from one of my favourite albums by the latter. Having admitted earlier that she never prepares a set list, preferring to put one together based on the audience, which was so quiet tonight that she didn’t really know what to do, she intimates that she is now “winging it” before playing another Irish classic – a stripped back, non-cheesy version of Danny Boy that, apparently, she once made a man cry while busking it. Ending the set with her latest, as yet untitled original Rachel proved that, as well as a beguiling voice and a charming choice in covers (I’m going to have to investigate Celtic folk a bit more now, as well as quite possibly buy a copy of that Eva Cassidy album), her song writing belies her age.
These And The Other Guy started their set by apologising, firstly that they hadn’t had time for a sound check (“Just start and keep going, I’ll get it,” shouted Dave from the back and I’m happy to report that he did) and secondly for the intrusion of electric instruments and amplification into an acoustic evening. I don’t think anybody really minded. Their influences appear to be much more diverse and they used a scattershot approach to pepper the set with jazz, blues, country, reggae and even a little hint of rock. This may only be the second time I have seen this band, but I am already of the opinion that Alex Botham is possibly York’s most watchable frontwoman. Once again, her expressive performance was bewitching and her vocals aren’t half bad either, whether it’s the sultriness of Bite You, the silkiness of Chocolate – a song that sends a tingle down my spine whenever I hear it – or the almost theatrical edge to Cabaret Queen. It wasn’t all about Alex’s vocals, though. Elsewhere in the band, Andy Ainlsie’s guitar and Gergo Kendik’s piano played off each other nicely during Put That Down, while the latter’s playing during Follow The Money had more than a hint of free form to it and there were some nice instrumental interludes, especially during Reckon. There was the odd occasion when Pete Spencer’s drums were slightly too loud, but that’s the only fault in the sound I could find, even the various backing vocals came through clearly. Disappointment that the band seemed to have played a very short set was tempered by amusement when we (and they) realised that they had got confused about their finish time – “I won’t be allowed out again,” quipped Andy Wilson – which was good news as the following three songs were the best of the set, especially the aforementioned Cabaret Queen.
With According To Eve, it’s as much about the on-stage chemistry between Eve Maule-Cole and Tim Downie as it is about the music. The bubbly, fun and mickey-taking Eve plays superbly off the more serious Tim, whether she is explaining that he loves playing Bob Marley’s Is This Love because he gets to put a five pound note in his guitar strings, like a proper rock star, or telling the audience that, “It’s Saturday night so I expect table-dancing halfway through the set” during the build up to that very song. Once she starts singing, though, that bubbliness is replaced by soulful vocals and a dreamy swaying around the microphone. Tim’s guitar playing, meanwhile, is almost a definition of versatility. Throughout the set his hands flew up and down the strings, crossing each other on the way, playing high up the neck as often as the more usual position and providing percussion via the guitar’s body. There was more confusion as Eve introduced their second song as Watching Stars, the first they wrote together only for Tim to start playing Everybody Says (“the sneezing song”), which it should have been. Watching Stars eventually took it’s pre-determined place as the slow and lovely third song and it was worth the wait. A cover of Amy MacDonald’s This Is The Life was followed by a song the pair had only learned for tonight and, in fact, Tim had to almost re-learn it, with Eve singing a bit to him so that he could pick up the tune and rhythm. I wish I could remember what song it was! The next original, Forget-Me-Nots, prompted Eve to explain that Tim thinks it’s the nicest song he’s written on the guitar and that he gets upset when she says it sounds like the Home And Away them tune. Having never watched the programme, I can neither confirm nor deny that, but the song itself alternated between quiet and more rockier sections. Soundman Dave was asked to make the pair sound as though they were in a cave for Arms and the heavy reverb produced a very atmospheric sound for a song that saw Tim’s most inventive playing of the set. After a cover of Paul Weller’s You Do Something To Me, the set was brought to a close with a final original. Better Mentality is the duo’s loudest song, Tim’s driving percussion providing a solid base for Eve’s most powerful vocals.
The final act of the evening was Sam Griffiths, a young singer/songwriter who seems, from my point of view, to have exploded onto the York acoustic scene relatively recently. He was joined on stage by Isaac McInnis on electric guitar and Charlie Tophill on backing vocals (and an amplifier in place of his usual bass-player). A wordless dual vocal opening led into A Noise Such As You, a quiet song which seemed to be about missing a girlfriend after a break-up. Wading In The Water was both livelier and happier while you could have heard a pin drop during the simple guitar and lovely vocal harmonies of Give It Time. “This one’s a bit stompy. Feel free to stamp along,” invited Sam before what might have been called Bring On The Water, during which an image of sixties pop was somehow evoked, not necessarily because of the music but something to do with the performance and Sam’s look. Safely On The Run was introduced as a story song, while Remedy To Rust started in a very folky fashion and featured great lyrics and powerful vocals counterpointed by more quiet ones. The award for best title of the night went to Paul Scholes Collects Moles, which is about neither the ex-footballer or moles and is only called that because Sam couldn’t think of a proper title. Somewhat fittingly, the vocals for this one, performed solo, were quaintly quirky. A second solo song was a cover of Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, a song I never expected to work so well as an acoustic, folk version. Charlie and Isaac returned to the stage for Camera, a song inspired by a line from David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which drew the set to a close. Throughout the set Isaac’s guitar had never been intrusive and was simply used to provide a nice backing line to the songs which, once again, highlighted a songwriting talent that belied a young age.
All in all, this had been a lovely evening of music, acoustic or otherwise, in a nice setting. All the acts had performed brilliantly and had been genuinely friendly and humorous between songs. Sadly, due to a prior commitment, I couldn’t make the second night. Happy birthday to the Little Festival and long may they continue putting on events like this.