Rachel Sermanni–The Basement, 23/09/15

Please Please You have been putting on gigs in York (and beyond) for ten years, roughly the same length of time that I have been regularly attending gigs in the city and yet, as far as I can remember and despite my penchant for trying out new acts, this is the first time I have actually attended one of this promoter’s gigs.

By the time my gig buddy arrived at The Basement, the queue to get in was snaking up the stairs and almost into the bar. We joined it expecting that, by the time doors opened and we got through them, we would be standing at the back of the small venue. Once inside, though, we were greeted by a different layout to any either of us had seen at the venue before. Gone were the four-chaired, candle-lit tables, replaced by two rows of chairs in front of the stage area and more around the sides, making it almost an in-the-round performance. We managed to bag two seats on the back row, although fairly central and it wasn’t long before the vast majority were taken, the crowd boosted by even more people standing wherever they could find space.

The gig poster had simply stated “and special guests”. It turned out those guests were Sam Griffiths – in my opinion one of the best young singer/songwriters in York at the moment – and York’s go-to double-bass player, Bradley Blackwell. The other two members of Griffiths’ recently formed band were, we were told part way through the set, attending another gig in Manchester that evening and the singer’s brief dalliance with stirring up a York/Manchester rivalry was soon discarded. The pair played what seems to be a standard, six-song set made interesting by Griffiths explaining the stories behind the songs. Remedy To Rust is about what he describes as an “inspirational album”, Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks (a fact that drew a sotto voce cheer from my gig buddy) while he explained that many times re-written end-of-the-world-love-song Shelter Of The Storm, lovely both lyrically and tonally, also referenced a Dylan Song. Other influences included David Lynch’s Lost Highway (Camera), the story of a friend’s parents’ breakup (Stray Animals) and another friend’s journey out of drink and drugs trouble (the almost pop-py Until I Found A Rose). Griffiths’ vocals were strong and clear, his guitar-playing varied and accompanied well by Blackwell’s dextrous and also varied double-bass. Wolves seemed to be a mini-theme. They appeared in the lyrics of Shelter Of The Storm and the final song of the set was We Were Wolves Once. This was vocally the strongest song and, although I don’t remember it being introduced by a story, if I interpreted the lyrics correctly, was about growing old. A very nice opening to the evening.

After a brief interval, Rachel Sermanni took to the stage. I have seen a review from a previous gig that intimated she appeared to be nervous under the spotlight. Myself, I’m not so sure, although I think her wide-eyed and slight whimsical or wistful look could certainly give that impression. Her Scottish accent was slightly husky – perhaps the result of being on the last few dates of a tour that has seen her and her band travelling across Europe in Phoebe The Lemon, a little yellow van that, she tells us, is along with Rachel herself and all her clothes, in need of a wash – as she explains that she has chosen the first song of tonight’s set at the last minute and that she hopes she can remember the words. Surely no nervous artist would choose that way to open a set. Partway through and those big eyes suddenly snap open as though in confidence that the words have, in fact, come flooding back. Then there’s a brief utterance of, “Oh…” and an elfin smile as she realises that she has tuned he guitar incorrectly, something that brings forth laughter from the audience and is soon rectified. “That worked OK,” she admits as Jennifer Austin comes on to provide light piano accompaniment and very subtle backing vocals for Wine Sweet Wine, a song with a fuller guitar sound and vocals and a very different mid-section that almost had me fooled into thinking “seque”. The final member of the band, Tom Terrell took up position behind the drum kit, keeping time during the next track with one drumstick on his knee while the other provided the percussion backing for an even more fuller sounding track replete with atmospheric vocals. While Terrell came out from behind the drums and picked up a second guitar, Sermanni engaged in a brief discussion about films, her assessments of Inside Out and Mission Impossible (presumably the latest instalment) were met with agreements from the audience, but she had to good-naturedly backtrack halfway through a denouncement of Minions when one punter cried out in appreciation of that film. Sleep, during which Terrell added bottleneck and deliberate feedback effects was as soft as a lullaby although I don’t think it was meant to be one. After another brief film-related interlude, this time singing the praises of Interstellar, we were treated to a Sermanni/Terrell duet of The Banks Are Broken, not a commentary on the current state of the world but more, I think, about metaphorical riverbanks. 

“We’ll do another gentle, sad one then wake them up,” Sermanni told Terrell as he pointed questioningly at the drums, and Marshmallow Unicorn was indeed incredibly gentle. Returning to the stage, Terrell once more took up position on drums for This Love, a song which built beautifully but during which those drums increasingly became a little bit intrusive. By now it had become apparent that Sermanni is a “habit” performer, often quaintly rising and falling on her toes throughout a song. Even more endearing was the way that she would occasionally crouch over her guitar during an instrumental section, almost in a rock style that seemed slightly at odds with her folk playing. “This next song is called Tractor, because the first verse was written while I was sitting in one avoiding the rain,” she told us before, across the introduction to two songs, giving an insight into the song writing process for her new album – Tied To The Moon – that is too long to reproduce here, even if I had been able to remember it all. Suffice to say it involved a trip to Canada and a few days of isolation. Tractor itself was a lively, almost folk-rock, with another nice piano backing, while Terrell’s bottleneck guitar once again made an appearance for Don’t Fade, a track that was loveliness personified and which saw the audience fall silent. The opening of The Fog somehow brought to mind Suzanne Vega, that is until the track and Sermanni’s vocals in particular, burst into powerful life. The main set was brought to a close by Old Lady’s Lament a simple and beautiful track, whimsically funny in places, during which the audience were encouraged to participate in the harmony.

As the trio left the stage the audience continued the main feel of the evening with an almost gentle request for an encore. Sermanni returned alone for one more song and decided to play it unplugged, moving out from behind the microphone closer to the audience to give us a song which she dedicated to Austin, with whom she has shared many “adventures”. Telling the story of those adventures and their friendship, it was a lovely end to a lovely gig.

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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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