It seems that even traditions can be broken. Last year was the first since 2008 that I didn’t attend Mostly Autumn’s Christmas gig at the Grand Opera House. Of course, that was because it didn’t happen due to no appropriate date being available. This year they are back, six days ahead of the earliest date the gig had been scheduled in any of those previous years, but the Christmas element had been discarded in favour of the first of four special gigs – two in the UK and two on the continent – which would also see the band perform the music of Pink Floyd, a formative influence on Bryan Josh’s music. I assume it was no coincidence that this year is also the fortieth anniversary of the release of Wish You Were Here. One tradition did continue, though. Despite recently labelling the music I listen to as “old”, Elizabeth decided she did want to go to this gig – her fourth time seeing Mostly Autumn and the first gig as a teenager.
When we made our way to our seats the cover to Dressed In Voices was already projected onto the back of the stage which itself was bathed in Autumnal lighting. Bryan Josh walked on stage before the house lights had even gone down and explained that the band would be playing their latest – and first concept – album in its entirety, explaining the story it tells, that of a dying man relating the story of his life to the person who has shot him. “It’s a cheery old thing,” he quipped. As the rest of the band came on stage for the opening of Saturday Night, the backdrop changed to a version of Bryan’s quote from the CD booklet and Livvy commenced what was to be an increasingly stunning vocal performance. As the opening track continued I realised early on that the sound tonight was being brilliantly handled – Chris Johnson’s acoustic guitar was coming through clearly as, later on, would Angela Gordon’s backing vocals. Most impressive of all, though, was Alex Cromarty’s drumming. Despite him playing frantically at times, the sound was subdued, removing the oft-heard scenario where the drum line dominates a band’s live sound. The band moved through songs from Dressed In Voices with barely a pause between tracks, recreating the feel of listening to the album. The pictures on the backdrop changed with each track, the images, again taken from the CD booklet, reflecting the lyrics – a shrouded face and a line of falling dominoes for Not Yours To Take, a small boy being menaced by a growing hand for First Day At School, a campfire for Down By The River and books for The Library.
As usual, members of the band came and went from the stage as and when they were needed and Andy Smith prowled backwards and forwards, at times taking his bass to the front, at others staying at the back. A few bursts of rumbling distortion spoiled the quiet opening of Home, but it was soon forgotten as those who had left returned to the stage, getting livelier as the song built to a climax that saw the first real chance for applause. By the time of First Day At School, Alex had discarded his jacket. The thunder effect was almost deafening in comparison to the track’s simple keys and vocals opening. Iain Jenning’s keyboards were superb throughout and the track drew more sustained applause. It was during Skin On Skin that Angela’s backing vocals became most noticeable and when violinist Anna Phoebe walked on stage. In the first appreciable departure from the album, Alex launched into a drum solo, to shouts of encouragement from the audience. That lead into Anna’s violin section, her body language seeming to almost challenge Bryan to take her on musically and led, in turn, to a stunning guitar and violin section, almost a duel, with Alex’s drums providing the backdrop, which was greeted by huge applause.
It might be said that Anna won the duel as Bryan left the stage as she provided violin accompaniment to Livvy’s vocals during The House On The Hill, the pair hugging at the end of the track before Anna left the stage. Strangely for a live performance, I found that some lyrics were falling into place for me more than they had been while I listened to the album, especially during The Last Day, whose “Easter egg” lyrics and guitar riff are what had always seemed to be prominent in previous listenings. Livvy’s performance of the track was expressive and emotional and it also saw Angela’s first foray out from behind her keyboards, taking centre stage for a flute section that was another Easter egg for long term fans. The emotion grew as the first half of the gig drew to a close through The Library, Dressed In Voices and Box Of Tears, which saw Angela provide another flute section, although my memories are sketchy of that section. (One woman in the audience had taken exception to me making notes on my phone, despite other people filming and taking photos on theirs. At least I turned up on time and didn’t disrupt a number of people while getting to my seat two or three songs into the set… Thankfully, she decided to relocate for the second half of the gig.)
After a twenty minute break, the band came back on for that second half, this one mostly dedicated to the music of Pink Floyd. The backdrop had changed to a snow-covered mountain and during this set, it was mostly a series of random moving images. Livvy, much like the woman above, had relocated, taking up the position at the back of the stage that she had occupied while still a backing singer for the band and being joined by Hannah Hird, although a section of the audience probably couldn’t see she was there.
Before the Pink Floyd tracks, we were taken back in time to the band’s debut album for a version of The Night Sky that included more stunning violin from Anna and built through a brilliant instrumental section. The rest of the set could easily have been labelled the Best Of Floyd. The instrumental opening to Shine On You Crazy Diamond was instantly recognisable, even if it had been given a Mostly Autumn makeover. In fact, that was the impression throughout this set. The band weren’t trying to reproduce the music in the way a tribute band would, the overall impression was one of homage rather than copy. This version featured a dreamy instrumental section and another guest appearance, this time by Chris Backhouse on saxophone. Back at the front of the stage, Livvy’s wordless backing vocals during The Great Gig In The Sky brought forth perhaps the biggest cheer of appreciation of the night so far, but there was better to come. The sound of sheep introduced the track of the same name and a chance for us to hear Chris Johnson’s distinctive vocals as he took the lead for a quite different, more rocky version compared to the original which saw him and Andy literally in the spotlight. It was a brilliant version which received two thumbs-up from Bryan at the end. On The Turning Away seemed to be equally as good, but Bryan only flashed one thumb at the audience this time.
There was more of Chris Backhouse’s saxophone during Us And Them and then Chris Johnson’s acoustic guitar kicked off Wish You Were Here, with Bryan saying the audience should feel free to sing along. The ending of tonight’s version of Comfortably Numb seemed to be very “Mostly Autumn” and brought some of the audience to their feet in appreciation, leading to a clap-along during the beginning of See Emily Play, during which Iain faithfully reproduced the sixties keyboard sound, while Alex’s drumming was more pounding than the original. This set was brought to a superb close by a version of You Better Run which saw Livvy and Hannah chanting, “Run, run, run,” in almost militaristic fashion while Bryan and Chris Johnson performed alternate vocal sections.
With the band off stage once again, a roadie moved Livvy’s microphone front and central once again, dispelling any doubts (as if they would have existed…) that there would be an encore and it wasn’t long before the opening notes of The Gap Is Too Wide were heard, Iain. Chris Johnson and Anna having come back on stage to precede Livvy’s best performance of the evening, her jaw-dropping vocal section standing in superbly for the recorded track’s choral section, with backing from Hannah, Angela and Chris Johnson. For me, the evening could have ended there. That has always been my favourite Mostly Autumn track, in some ways the track that got me into the band, and yet this was the first time I had heard them play it live. There was to be two more tracks, though. Evergreen, a track that Livvy has now made her own, brought forth a grin from Elizabeth, who loves it, and then the evening was brought to its inevitable rousing close by Heroes Never Die, once again (and as always) dedicated to Robbie Josh.
With the music over the whole band congregated at the front of the stage, taking in the extended applause and standing ovation from the audience before taking their final bow. It might have been strange not to finish with Christmas songs but this gig would put to bed any criticisms that the band relied too much on stales from their back catalogue. Yes, the last two tracks are usually played, but others haven’t been heard in York for some time and the inclusion of a nearly full set of “covers” mixed things up immensely over the three hours of superb music we were treated to.