The Furrow Collective

The Crescent, York

8 September 2019

I've been down to the Crescent a few times and I really like it as a rock venue, but I was concerned that it wasn't a good fit for the Furrow Collective—a big, cavernous, standing-only space that I thought might swallow their sound.

Well, the venue proved me wrong immediately. For a start they have put out chairs and tables, which solved the standing problem and also made sure that the audience (a decent size, but nowhere near enough to fill the whole space) was comfortably bunched in front of the stage. But it's still strange to see the band's stage set dwarfed by the giant stacks of rock-gig speakers at either side. Even with seats, it really feels like ... a hall you go to see rock gigs in.

So I am actually sitting writing this in the venue (because I was first through the doors when they opened, and I forgot to bring a book for while I'm waiting), and Rachel has just come on and started tuning her (electric) harp, and you know what? This gig is going to be perfect.

I've seen the band before, of course—actually twice this year already—but their set has never been the same any two times I've seen them. Everything is drawn from their three albums, and there are some things that are "always" there, but otherwise their set lists appear to be fairly random, and possibly even made up on the spot. When they come on for the encore, Lucy (I think it was) says “We have one more ... actually we have about 30 more”, and there's a debate on the stage about what they will play (it's Dear Companion in the end).

So although I know everything they play, I'm not watching the same set as I was earlier in the year, and even if I was it wouldn't really matter. It's all good. They start with Davy Lowston followed by The Dark Eyed Gypsies, two songs that immediately tell you all you need to know about this group's biggest strength: a perfect blend of harmonies from all four voices, accompanied by just the right instrumentation, whether it's a lone drone from a shruti box or a lush, full sound from all four musicians. Emily Portman plays banjo and concertina, and it's hard to imagine two instruments more different, but the diversity in sound from song to song is all part of what makes this group so interesting, and why traditional songs take on a completely new life in their hands. Alasdair Roberts plays electric as well as acoustic guitar. Lucy Farrell plays ... everything. Sometimes all at the same time. She's like a one-woman band. And Rachel Newton is just my favourite harpist in the entire universe, even when the Furrow Collective arrangements don't allow her to show off any really flashy playing. The group is all about blending different instrumental sounds rather than any one person showing off their virtuosity, but I'm still going to call out Alasdair's beautiful, restrained, electric solo on Dear Companion as the highlight of the night. Other highlights are the acoustic guitar led Skippin' Barfit Through The Heather, a spine-tingling duet of electric guitar and harp on the spooky Polly Vaughan, and my favourite "token" song, Hind Horn, with a dancing viola and a completely infectious concertina melody.

And as for how a space that's fine for a loud rock gig is going struggle with the more subtle dynamics of a folk quartet: it's not a problem at all. The sound is perfect, amplified to a comfortable level and with every instrument, stomps and all, standing out clearly—the only exception being, I think they misjudged the ability of the ringing bowl things to cut through the amplified sound.

Honestly, it's all good. Ninety minutes of favourite songs with beautiful playing and singing is easily worth a trip to York.