They say that things happen in threes. If it’s true Mulholland’s Stan Smith must have been increasing worried as tonight’s gig got closer to starting. After a breaking a guitar string just as he started playing live on local radio that morning and dropping an almost full drink in front of The Basement’s stage area in that lull between doors opening and music starting, what else could go wrong…?
The evening started with Stan and Ann presenting Vinnie Whitehead with a gift, thanking him for the good work he had done co-producing and mixing their debut album, North Country, for which this was the launch gig. It then continued with the premiere of their latest video, accompanying Black Feathers, a song from the album. Things started well, promisingly so, with the video being projected onto a big screen at the back of the stage. It looked impressive, art-y but not pretentiously so, well thought out with the images fitting well with the lyrics. Unfortunately, as it went on, the gremlins that inhabit Bill Gates’ well-known operating system seemed to take over and, after a brief attempt to sort things out, it was decided that it would be easier to move on and we were advised to keep an eye out for the on-line launch in the morning. For anybody interested, you can see the full thing here.
Then it was on to the live music, with Stan taking to the stage to introduce the first of tonight’s hand-picked support acts, The Lungs. I hadn’t come across this duo before but I really hope I do so again. The description of “country/folk” on their Facebook page doesn’t really do them justice. There was a sort of irreverence to their songs that, to me, begs for a second (and subsequent) listen(s) in order to work out what they are actually about, what stories they are telling. Their opener was musically light, but seemed lyrically darker, with Theo Mason Wood’s vocals deep and raw, just the correct side of over-powering those of Bonnie Milnes. Dengue Fever, we were told, was about being ill, a state that, apparently, Bonnie was in tonight. Not that you could have told. During this once again dark and this time more intense track, her vocals were stronger and she took a bigger proportion of the lyrics. Me And You was anything but dark. Musically faster it had a more traditional country sound but that wasn’t reflected in the lyrics, which drew chuckles from the audience throughout. The pair displayed an easy humour between songs. “This one’s called tuning. It’s not one of our best,” quipped Wood before Barrel, during which a lovely effect on Milnes’ vocals brilliantly counterpointed his deeper tone. This song continued the theme of surreal lyrics that had started to surface in the last one, but that was nothing to what came next. The next three songs, which ended the set, all shared the same title – Julianna Buttermaker – and were parts one to three of a story that spanned over thirty years. It’s songs like these that deserve another listen as I doubt I could explain the story after just one. Part One saw the duo’s country sound morph into a sort of angry-jazz vocal style. Part Two ended with a darkly amusing lyrical bombshell and when Part Three was announced I couldn’t help but wonder how they would follow it and yet they managed, with each subsequent track getting bigger applause and more laughs and, by the end of the third, shouts for more. This had been an interesting, intriguing and entertaining start to the evening.
Next up was The Bronze, a duo I have seen before. During Stan’s introduction he described Holly Taymar’s vocals as “sublime” to which, seemingly embarrassed, she replied, “Don’t build ‘em up, Stan.” I was on my own at the gig tonight but really wished that one of my regular gig-buddies was with me, just so that he could hear that The Bronze really aren’t “depressing”, a description I’ve never agreed with and which seemed even further from the truth than ever tonight. They opened quietly with simple-yet-effective guitar and, yes, some quite lovely vocals which seemed to hold the audience spellbound. Chris Bilton switched from electric to acoustic guitar for Seeking Me Out In The Dark, a song which upped the volume from the opening and for which Bilton also provided some subtle backing vocals. “Do we have any AC/DC fans in the house?” Taymar asked somewhat unexpectedly – only one person owned up to it – before they performed a version of If You Want Blood (You Got It) which was not only acoustic but gentle. I hadn’t made the connection before but the duo took their name from the club frequented by characters in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series (and which also introduced me to the music of Michelle Branch) a fact explained by Taymar as she re-tuned for Hush, inspired by one of that show’s best episodes. Then an inaudible (to me, anyway) comment from Bilton prompted her to explain that wasn’t, in fact, the next song. Instead it would be Gun To The Floor, which was inspired by an episode of Dexter. “You can tell how we fill our evenings,” she explained. The on-stage banter was raising smiles, the song brought forth a nice mid-section guitar-line. To cries of “Awww” Taymar swapped her guitar for a ukulele for Small Love, her solo vocals nearly its sound before the song built into a more complex duet that ended the set in style.
Mulholland themselves are also a duo, but an array of guest musicians helped them make North Country and many of them were also helping out Ann and Stan tonight. At various points throughout tonight’s set, which saw the album played in full, you could hear the sounds of a dobro (Mike Taverner), mandolin (Jack Woods), banjo (Steve Askew), electric guitar (Dan Archer) and cajon (Ed Simpson) as well as a very charismatic performance of a double bass by Kai West and backing vocals of the sublime sort from Holly Taymar. Cold Wind kicked things off in foot-tapping style, with Stan’s lead vocals and Ann and Holly’s backing never overpowered by the music, despite the whole band joining in. Ann’s fiddle also came through strongly, both facts a testament to tonight’s engineer who juggled the sound superbly. Strangely, though, I don’t think anybody (in the crowd at least) noticed that Stan’s guitar was missing from the mix until he asked for more of it in his monitor, only to discover that it wasn’t fully plugged in. Maybe things happen in fours… With the problem resolved the guitar could definitely be heard clearly through So Sorry Blues and, indeed, the remainder of the set. During the light and lively Summertime Stan’s vocals were Dylan-esque and yet, in my opinion, much easier to listen to. My Wasted Heart was followed by Black Feathers, slowing things down a bit. Without any operating system involvement we were treated to the full song this time and a fantastic and just a little bit edgy song it is. Shifting Sands was described by Ann as having the “true country tradition of sounding jolly but being tragic” but I doubt that she she was referring to the half-remembered Jim Reeves track from my childhood that the spoken-word section brought to mind. There is one cover on North Country. It’s a Warren Zeavon song but not “that one” anybody who was expecting Werewolves Of London was told. “It’s a song for our times, we feel,” explained Stan, before they played Don’t Let Us Get Sick, which again brought the tone of the set down a notch or two. Highway 101, the last track on the album and the last played with the band tonight, was backed by such a furious cajon rhythm that it resulted in a cry of “Yes!” from Simpson and a congratulatory hug for him from Ann as the track ended and the band left the stage. That wasn’t the end of the set though as Ann and Stan stayed on to play a duet version of the lively Come On Back, from the original Mulholland EP, Ghosts And Shadows and a version of Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow Is A Long Time.
Three duets (and a backing band) providing some lovely, entertaining music in similar and yet still diverse styles and a copy of North Country included in the ticket price. This really had been a Good Friday.