Breathing Space

Temple Hall, York

14 July 2006

First gig for an untried band and I didn't really know what to expect. I'd loved the Breathing Space CD, no surprise as Iain Jennings has never written a song I don't like, but I couldn't see the music translating well live. Plus with only one "Breathing Space" album to draw on, I couldn't really see how he would fill a concert set. In fact, I'd resigned myself to a short set (a hypothesis supported by the late start time — support act on at 8.30) of the "gig-friendly" material from the album (i.e. not the dense and complex instrumentals) filled out with some Mostly Autumn material. When I was guided to the venue by the sound of Distant Train being sound-checked, this seemed to confirm my theory.

In reality, no, it wasn't anything like that. The band played for two hours twenty (with a very short intermission) and the set contained... well, I'll get to that in a minute.

First I want to mention the support act, Adam Dawson, who was excellent. Great voice, nice guitar sound, songs in the style of... well let's just say he covered Syd Barrett's Terrapin and it fitted with his material seamlessly, and you'll get an idea. So why was everybody in the bar? Good grief, people, support support acts! You never know what you'll find. If I didn't make a point of always seeing the support band, I wouldn't be a Mostly Autumn fan today!

Ok, enough ranting, more reviewing.

Breathing Space, the band. This wasn't a Wakeman-style keyboard showcase (though the keyboards did cover half the stage) with Iain Jennings and a bunch of sidekicks, but a real band effort. I'm sorry I don't remember all their names (though most of them seemed to be called "Jennings") but every one was a superb musician. I was totally blown away by the guitar player. Mr Jennings should hold on to him. And the drummer was particularly impressive, too. Oh... what's his name again...? And Olivia Sparnenn's voice was, as usual, note-perfect, pure, and precise. (There are times when you almost wish she would crack and let in more emotion. Her voice is actually too perfect, if that makes any sense.)

Iain and Olivia shared the song announcements and general nattering with the audience and kept the atmosphere relaxed and friendly. The band looked happy and confident.

The set. As I mentioned, not what I expected. And... I have mixed feelings. Fifty percent of it was exceptionally good, better even than I had expected. The other fifty percent... they lost me a bit.

From the Breathing Space CD I think they played everything except Escape and I don't know why I thought the songs might not work live because they all sounded superb. Impossible to pick a highlight. Everything about the songs that works on the CD is reproduced — the flawless vocals, the instrumental complexity, the powerful choruses — but there's an extra energy and crunchy rockyness that isn't on the CD and lifts them a notch above being a set of power ballads and laid-back instrumental jazz.

There were a couple of new songs (which I can't remember by name) that were good enough to make me look forward to the next CD. One I think was co-written by Iain and Olivia, which shows a lot of promise for their future writing partnership (although the never-to-be-sufficiently-praised Belief had already convinced me that they were a good match).

A couple of Olivia Sparnenn's original songs: The Rain Song (or something), which is very pretty (and I'm sure I've heard it before), and a song that made me think of Journey (yes, that's a compliment).

So far, so good. I'm impressed. I mean, really impressed. If that was it, I would be telling you that this is the best concert I've ever seen. Certainly for a debut gig the band should be really proud and should have easily sold all the CDs in the back corner.

But those who can't take constructive criticism, stop reading here. Because there's a but.

And the "but" is the covers. The set was extremely heavy on cover songs. Which it had to be, because you can't fill two hours with one album and a couple of new songs. But... it's a new band, and a new band playing covers, no matter how technically accomplished they are, are going to lose me with the wrong set of covers. Sure, an established band can get away with anything — you love the band so you'll listen to whatever they do. But a new band (which this is, despite me seeing Iain Jennings at thirty-odd Mostly Autumn gigs) have to sell me on the songs. And, well...

Only two Mostly Autumn songs. I had expected more, but on reflection this was the right choice. It doesn't matter how good this new band is, they're going to be compared and somebody will moan at them for being too different/not different enough/not Heather/etc., so I think Iain was right to limit the number of MA songs in the set. So we got Distant Train (inevitably rearranged (no flute!) but not suffering at all for it (huge credit to the guitar guy)) and Hollow (yes, I can hear Mostly Autumn fans all up and down the country kicking themselves for missing it). And I'll just say that they were good choices and great performances (and the Breathing Space guitar player is phenomenal, if I haven't mentioned that already).

Because the Night (Patti Smith) came three songs into the set. Decent song, but not something I feel an emotional connection to. Which was also the problem with the rest of the covers. Two Heart songs (Listen to your Heart, which I like well enough, and another I didn't know). Something by U2 which seemed dimly familiar (sorry, not a huge fan). Autumn Leaves (Nat King Cole — though Olivia said it was also done by Eva Cassidy... you learn something new every day!). Feeling Good (Nina Simone) which is a great song but again doesn't really move me. And I'm sure there were one or two more but my mind is blank. Autumn Leaves was beautiful (just voice, acoustic guitar, and piano) and the highlight of the "covers" set (and it's only now that the subtext of the title has occurred to me — deliberate?). The rest... I don't know. It's just a personal view, of course, but I kind of switched off for them. They just didn't engage me emotionally, unlike (for example) Belief or You Still Linger (love how Olivia sings both the main and backing vocals, by the way), which they could have played three times each if they needed to fill out the time. (Seriously. I would have been happy. Breathing Space is an album I can put on endless repeat all afternoon.)

I've probably gone into more clinical detail than I usually would because I know a lot of people couldn't make the gig (I think there were a little over a hundred people in the crowd). But you should see them. Honestly, despite my few complaints, it was a great gig. Easily worth the trip to York.

Will I go and see them again? Of course I will, covers and all. And I'll continue to push the band to everybody I can find. Because when they're good they are very, very good. And when they get a second album under their belts and can fill a set with their own material, they'll be perfect. But everybody who knows Iain Jennings' song writing knows that already of course.