Sometimes it seems that things are trying their hardest to stop a gig being enjoyable. Tonight a small portion of the crowd who, perhaps having had too much to drink, were treating a relatively gentle folk set as a rock concert, a lights man (not one of the usual crew) who, at times, seemed to be working out what button did what as the evening went on and the noise from the adjacent Bier Keller being so loud that it caused one song to be dropped completely from Emma Stevens’ set were minor annoyances compared to the huge air-conditioning unit that was blowing an icy blast from which there seemed nowhere to hide. Between sets, one of my gig buddies even decided to go outside to warm up, despite a turn in the weather that afternoon meaning that it was nowhere near as warm in York as it had been just a few hours earlier. Thankfully all these issues (well, except the Bier Keller – that definitely needs more soundproofing) were resolved before the gig ended and, as far as I could see, none of the audience or acts were actually turned into frozen popsicles.
Opening proceedings tonight were York’s own The Bronze (Holly Taymar and Chris Bilton). It seemed ironic, given that one of our gang of gig-goers had described them as “too depressing” during our pre-gig meet, that Holly should tell the audience that, “all our songs are slow and depressing” a short way into their very short set. Apparently still soundchecking when we arrived, the pair played their first song just a handful of minutes after the doors opened. Gun To The Floor opened the set in a gentle manner, Holly’s vocals struggling to rise above the noise of that air-con unit, but eventually finding a way through. If anything, the applause from the crowd at the end of the song was louder than the noise coming from the stage. Holly drew laughter from the crowd as she explained that they had recently played a bride down the aisle with Not Just For The Day, despite it being inspired by a well known celebrity shooting incident. This lovely song saw the twin acoustic guitars weaving notes through each other’s playing before coming together strongly for the end of the track. Seeking Me Out In The Dark was, cheerily, about illness and then the audience were given the choice between a two guitar song about Buffy The Vampire Slayer or a ukulele round. Being, nominally at least, a folk gig, the latter was chosen. I suspect any song featuring a ukulele can only be described as “light” and Small Love was just that. Not at all depressing, with nice vocal harmonies during the rounds, it ended the set well.
Multi-award winning Blair Dunlop was the first of the double-headline acts to take to the stage and he gave us a perfectly-crafted hour of music which started gently and gradually increased in volume and tempo, for the most part joined on stage by a keyboard player named Jacob. (If his surname was thrown, I didn’t catch it.) A short acoustic opener and an accolade for The Bronze was followed by a song about Christopher Marlowe – Dunlop is one of those acts more likely to tell you what a song is about than what it is actually called and my usual method of noting down lyrics fails when the internet is bereft of lyrics for an act – which featured a nicely atmospheric keyboard line. Then it was onto electric guitar for 45s (c.14) the first of two songs about the same club, this one set in 2014 when it is not a very nice place. This was a bit rockier and, for me, much stronger than the first couple of tracks. Fifty Shades Of Blue continued the trend, albeit it was a bit slower and then, with Jacob off the stage – “Are you having a good time? I am now Jacob has gone,” joked Dunlop, who showed an easy rapport with the audience throughout his set – we got a solo version of Blight And Blossom, the title track of his first album. An instrumental track, a seventeenth century tune, saw Dunlop performing some intricate guitar work, hands moving up and down the neck and notes left hanging in the air as the next few were played. Jacob returned for Black Is The Colour, a traditional Scottish song which started quietly and gradually got stronger. “This song is about my ex-girlfriend. Is it happy…?” was the introduction to a track that ended up being livelier than I expected it to be, with a full-bodied second half. By the next song my foot had really started tapping and the liveliness was increased again during a song about Fox News which I thought was probably called No Go Zones (it wasn’t…) It was back onto the electric guitar for a brand new song and then the set ended with the second song about that club, 45s (c.69) being about the venue’s heyday in the sixties. After a short break off stage, barely long enough for the duo to take a sip of their tipples of choice in the green room, there was time for a brief, upbeat encore song to end an enjoyable set.
Looking around the venue, it was difficult to tell which of the acts, if not both, those in the crowd were here to see. Judging by the reception his set received, there were plenty there to support Dunlop without showing the explicit support of tour T-shirts (and I can’t say that I noticed whether he actually had them on sale) but there were plenty in the crowd wearing garments from Emma Stevens’ current tour, including one group who I think announced were from Cheshire and two young girls, one of whom was adorably enthusiastic. Personally, I was definitely there to see Emma. Her gig here last year, while under-attended was one of my highlights of the year and her first album, Enchanted, has become a family favourite.
Where Dunlop had started gently and slowly built, Emma came out all guns blazing, joining the rest of her band on stage and launching straight into the jaunty So Stop The World before swapping guitar for banjo – and referring to that 2014 gig and enthusing that there was such a bigger crowd here tonight – for Once. Already she was wearing the huge smile that you just can’t help falling in love with. The story about How To Write A Love Song being about an ex-boyfriend drew the usual, “Booo” from the audience as well as, this time, a bit of messing about from the band. I’m not sure whether the loud and extended note played on the keyboard was another expression against that offending ex or whether it was to drown out a story the band must hear every night. I’ve often commented that bands seem to being have fun on stage but it really does seem to be the case with this foursome, to the point that Emma asked the crowd to let her know if anything was happening behind her. And it frequently did, with blame generally, and often unfairly, being laid at the drummer’s feet whenever she turned around to see what was going on. Helium, a song inspired by a QI episode in which it was explained that the world is running out of the gas, was another from Waves, Emma’s new album. Even though it was the first time I had heard it, it has the lovely Emma Stevens “style” that makes it sound familiar. Another instrument change, this time to ukulele, meant that Anywhere, a song about not needing to spend loads of money on holidays because it is the company you are with that matters, was a light and lively affair, and featured comedy dancing from the band. Like a lot of Emma’s output it was feel good music with a Summery feel. As Emma announced the next song as Shooting For The Moon, the aforementioned little girl got so excited that she ended up with it dedicated to her. Slower and with a fuller sound due to the addition of keyboards, it suddenly picked up pace towards the end. The audience were invited to sing along during Make My Day and duly obliged and then the guitarist and drummer left the stage as Emma explained that she was, for only the fifth time ever, going to sing without hiding behind an instrument. Accompanied just by keyboards, Singer Of My Song was almost certainly the loveliest song of the set but, despite the audience being silent throughout (except when one poor person kicked over a bottle, which seemed to rattle forever, drawing a smile from Emma) this was the time that the Bier Keller seemed to kick into loud life and Emma’s vocals were fighting against it. With the keyboard player joining the others the green room and Emma apparently about to perform a song solo she quipped that, “this is great because I get a concert as well,” before giving up on the idea because the song would have been so quiet the background noise would have spoiled it. I suspect it would have been Sunflower, which is a shame as it really is a lovely, emotional song. Bringing the band back on for a ukulele-fronted cover of Can’t Help Falling In Love, the crowd were encouraged to sing along again, and to try to get those in the Bier Keller to hear us, rather than the other way round. With the quieter mid-section of the set over, the tempo was upped again with A Place Called You and then, all too soon, it was announced that it was time for the last song of the set. Before it started, another swell of noise came rolling in from the back of the venue, prompting the guitarist to laughingly query whether this was “real life” (and the bass player to respond, “no it’s just fantasy…”) and then the almost rock and roll sound of Riptide saw the audience singing and dancing along once again. Shouts for more did see the band quickly return to stage but the usual early curfew meant there was no time for another song and they had to make do with thanking the enthusiastic crowd again.
Just like last year, one of the best things about seeing Emma Stevens live is that, both on and off stage, she is just so genuine. It shines through in her performance and, when that is over, continues when she comes off stage to meet and chat with fans. Everybody queuing at the merchandise table is greeted with a hug and thanks for coming and nothing seems too much trouble for her, from signing autographs to offering, more than once, to take a selfie on her own phone and send it to the fan who was having trouble getting a decent one on their phone. A truly lovely person, who creates great music and a brilliant atmosphere when she plays live, it’s nice to see her apparently winning more and more fans and I really hope she will be back in York again.