Although tonight’s headliner continued the Scandinavian theme of the last gig I attended, it couldn’t have been more different from the loud heavy metal of that night. Local promoter Please Please You had put together a female-heavy bill at The Basement and the only comparison could have been that this much smaller venue was, relatively, as crowded as Fibbers was when Týr came to town.
Opening proceedings was the young North Yorkshire singer/songwriter Amy May Ellis, who I hadn’t come across before. It is, perhaps, testament to the fact that I am drawn more to female vocals that I didn’t immediately think, “Oh no, not another acoustic guitar act.” Or maybe it was the fact that Amy May’s guitar was a four-string (tenor?) guitar, which gave her playing a different sound to the usual. Kicking things off with Sailing, my initial impression was that her lovely vocals reminded me of somebody but I haven’t been able to work out who. The next song – Fading? – saw Amy May take up a strumming style, as opposed to the finger-picking of the previous and featured a strong mid-section both musically and vocally and a far-away look in her eyes as she brought it to a close. That look turned melancholy for the next, sadder sounding song while the vocals for the next – with its chorus including the lyric “Dreams are made for us” – came across as more plaintive. “This is my last happy song and it’s called Happy Song,” announced Amy May. It was faster than the last few, with her vocals quaintly almost falling over themselves in places and it may have been that complexity that meant it was very short. “It’s downhill from here,” she quipped as she moved on. That far-away look was back and, at times I found myself having to look away when it wasn’t clear whether Amy May was looking straight at me or straight through me. This track was much longer and featured the strongest vocals of the set, along with powerful lyrics. After a quick drink and a re-tune of the guitar, we got the final track of the set, an un-named new song which was wistful in places. A nice, pleasant start to the evening.
Next on stage were Sur (there’s an extended “rr” sound at the end) and I initially spent as much time trying to find out more about them as I did listening to their wonderful music. This all-girl trio, all dressed in black provided us with a too-short set during which they swapped vocal and instrumental duties and even languages. I have since read that they are “from” York University and, with their mix of accents and their names being Gaia Blandina, Uma Bunnag and Holly Gurney, there is a good chance they met there. They opened with the soft and gentle Mockingbird, Holly and Uma providing lovely dual vocals, with cellist Gaia, playing her third gig of the day, adding a third harmony later in the track. The first instrument change came with just their second track, as Holly took over guitar and Uma moved to main vocals for a lighter song with a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it, to which Gaia added a whistling section. More lovely three part vocals followed before a restful cover of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. With Holly now wielding a violin, the next track saw Uma once again playing guitar and providing vocals in what I think was Spanish. There was a more sombre instrumental section from the cello and violin before the track became lively again, with Holly picking at the violin strings. There was more instrument movement as Gaia laid down her cello and took up guitar for a the next track, which featured some stunning vocals “in the round”. Instruments were discarded completely for the a capella start to the girls’ penultimate track, while the final track of their set featured both plucked and bow-played cello. Completely different to anything I have heard or come across before Sur provided the audience with a blissful, restful, laidback set of relaxing, wind-down music. As they prepared to leave the stage one of the girls said, “Thanks for putting up with us.” In fact, it was the audience that was thanking them, for something that was rather lovely.
Frøkedal is Anne Lise Frøkedal, who has been part of Norway’s indie-rock scene for years. Tonight, she is joined by her Familien (Norwegian for family) for a gig that, coincidentally, falls on the release date of her first solo album – Hold On Dreamer. She had copies for sale but, unfortunately, only on vinyl as no CD versions had made it here. There’s a short and atmospheric start to the set with Don’t Look Back, Frøkedal playing electric guitar and providing vocals, accompanied by keyboards, violin and a rhythm section comprised of just two drums. The dreamy The Man Who Isn’t Here follows, Thea Glenton Raknes’ single drum providing a sparse atmospheric backdrop to the track. If the openers were atmospheric, the next – simply introduced as “about surfing” – is lighter and yet almost rocky, with soaring vocals in places. Misery was introduced as being about the West coast of Norway which, Frøkedal assured us (perhaps to the dismay of the Norwegian tourist board), can be, “a really gloomy place at times”. The song itself was more haunting than gloomy. After a short interlude in which it was implied that, if anybody in the audience ever visited Norway they would find it easier to drive there than the band did driving in York, the next track was opened in solo style, with Frøkedal providing vocals and sparse guitar, but slowly built to include violin and keyboard.
W.O.Y. (Without You) started with a sort of traditional folk sound, primarily because of the violin, but with an “electric’d up” feel to it. Again it built to a bigger sound for its main section. I didn’t note much down about Cherry Trees, apart from it was inspired by one of Oslo’s “scruffier” streets, but one which is lined with said trees which, once a year, burst into colour. In some ways that description is indicative of the sort of inspiration and music flowing from this set (and that is in no way meant to imply that any of the set was scruffy…) As the Familien on violin swapped that instrument for what looked like a covered-over wooden soup ladle, one of the members of Sur took advantage of the fact that we had been invited to shout out questions (she had already asked where Hold On Dreamer could be bought) to ask what the instrument was. The player explained that it was a miniature bouzouki from Greece. By now I was getting lost in the music and making fewer notes so details are sparse. Suffice to say that the tracks continued to be welcoming and evocative, a mix of laid-back pop and folk, with tracks coming from the album and an earlier E.P.
By the time my fingers had found the keyboard of my phone again the set was drawing to a close. My gig-buddy pointed out that the keyboard opening of Dream gave it a “prog-gy” sound. That opening led into a pleasantly strident (I can think of no other word to describe it, but that one feels so inadequate) track both vocally and from the violin. As it continued it lost that strident sound and built strongly into another wonderfully atmospheric track. “Do you want us to play one more?” asked Frøkedal, somewhat unnecessarily. Of course we did and we were treated to the lighter and livelier Kid as a combined set-ender and encore. I would have loved to stick around afterwards to try to catch a word and say how much I had enjoyed the set but the later-than-normal end to the evening meant I was in danger of missing my transport home so I my exit was hastier than I intended.
I haven’t been to many Please Please You gigs but I have enjoyed those I have attended. Tonight’s not only featured, in my opinion, the best headliner put on by the promoter that I have come across but the overall line-up made it by far my favourite of their gigs.