Emily Portman

Sage, Gateshead

28 June 2015

I don't know why I'm sitting in the middle of the front row. The front row is a terrible place to be at a seated gig with a high stage. But Hall Two of the Sage is the best hall I've ever been in, so I will cope. Whatever else, I know the sound quality will be flawless.

But another problem is that I'm still buzzing with the memory of last night's gig, so much so that I haven't been able to feel the anticipation I should feel for tonight. I have a feeling the whole thing is going to feel a bit flat after last night. There's no way Emily's folk-styled music is going to compete with the energy and excitement of a rock gig.


It doesn't have to compete on energy. It's got something completely different. On a bare stage, with subdued lighting casting atmospheric shadows across them, Emily Portman (voice, concertina, banjo, ukelele), Lucy Farrell (voice, violin, viola, saw) and Rachel Newton (voice, harp, violin) just stand and play the most haunting, evocative music you can imagine, and instantly all thoughts of anything outside these songs have gone and I'm utterly transfixed for the next 90 minutes.

Emily Portman doesn't write songs like anyone else I've ever heard. Based on dreams and fairy tales, the lyrics are spooky and enigmatic and demand your absolute attention to follow their complex imagery. The instrumental accompaniment, though often sparse, is also richly complex and perfectly matches the the mood of the songs. And the selling point, for me, is the three-part vocal harmonies, which are just perfect, rarely simple "backing vocals" but always cleverly worked out and flawlessly sung.

It's a while since I saw the trio live, and I've deliberately avoided playing the new album (Coracle) since getting it a few days ago, but I still thought I knew what to expect. And to a large part, I was right. The first few songs are drawn from the first two albums, and manage to include most of my favourites. But a few songs in, and particularly with the Coracle songs, things start to change.

Rachel is playing her electric harp for the gig, which I thought strange as she's always played "proper" harp with Emily previously, and I would have thought that suited the music better. But the electroharp is an amazing instrument, still able to sound like a harp, obviously, but with deep bass notes that resonate through you forever, and used to really great effect when the song calls for it. And that's not the only electronic enhancement. Rachel is triggering sampled sounds from a laptop to fill out certain songs, and Lucy (at least) is using effects pedals on her fiddle, at least an echo and possibly more. And just to complete freaking out the folk purists, there's a full drum kit on stage and the trio is joined by a guest drummer on several songs.

The whole effect is a rich and complex sound that just sounds perfect accompanying Emily's lyrics.

I love it.

And then after all this electronic jiggery-pokery, for the encore the trio stands at the front of the stage and sing, in three-part harmony, the lullabye When You're Weary — not just unaccompanied but completely unamplified, as if to say, see, we can do all the clever stuff, but here's what really matters.

The whole evening is stunningly beautiful. And, yes, while I'm under its spell, I know it's the best concert I've ever seen.

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