Heather Findlay Band / Odin Dragonfly

The Cluny 2, Newcastle

13 November 2012

Do you know what it's like when you’ve built something up so much in your mind that there's no way the picture can match reality? Have you ever held someone up to such an artificially high standard that you’ve forgotten it's just a human, with human limitations? That was me before this gig.

I went into this gig knowing it was going to be perfect. I went in convinced I was going to proclaim it the best concert I had ever seen, knowing that it was going to be in the #1 spot in my top ten concerts of the year. I went in with half this review written in my head, because I already knew how perfect this night was going to be.

And of course nothing is that perfect in the real world. Musicians—even Heather Findlay—are only human.

So I'm not going to tell you was a flawless musical performance. Despite what you all (probably) think, when I write these reviews I am always honest, there's no point otherwise. And the honest truth is that this was a gig scattered with small imperfections. Forgotten lyrics, forgotten cues, a couple of fluffed songs. It's the first gig of the tour and first gig by the new band line up.

Imperfections? Pfft. That's another way of saying "human". From the first moment of the evening, when Heather head-butted her microphone and chipped her tooth (I am not kidding!), to the last, when the band simply put down their instruments and stepped off the stage and into the crowd without an encore, I would not change a single minute, warts and all. This was a perfect concert.

Sometimes I worry that my judgement isn't objective enough and people just laugh at these reviews I write. We walked out of the venue, me with the feeling this was the best concert I have ever seen but knowing there had been (objectively) a few mistakes on stage, and wondering if I was being honest with myself. Then my friend turned round and asked, "How can she be that good?" And I compared the real Heather with the mythical, perfect Heather in my head and, yes, she is that good. Believe the myth. The simple, honest, bottom-of-my-heart truth is that Heather Findlay is the best singer in the world at the moment. And this was the best concert I have ever seen.

And the tragedy is that only about 60 people saw this, a crowd that didn't even comfortably fill the tiny Cluny 2. Heather should have stadiums full of fans. But then, I wouldn't be able to stand 10 feet away from her and feel (know, without doubt) that she is singing directly to me.

The extraordinary thing about Heather Findlay is her versatility—it appears she can do anything. Tonight she proved this by playing in her own support band: Odin Dragonfly.

Five years I've been waiting for Odin Dragonfly (Heather on guitar and vocals, Angela Gordon on piano, flute, and vocals) to reform. It's like they were never away. Yes, they did feel "rusty". Heather forgot the lyrics to Eyes of the Forest, Angela fluffed a couple of piano chords I think, Heather struggled with guitar tuning. Heart-breakingly, Angela couldn’t finish singing Waiting for the Snow at all (I totally understand why—I've had cats all my life, and the song has always made me cry). The songs, from both women, sound as beautiful as they always did, the vocal partnership still the most perfect I have ever heard, the chemistry between them as strong as ever. They played about half-a-dozen songs in a half-hour set and left me wishing they would come back for a headlining show again. I bought tickets for four gigs on this tour because they are the four that Odin Dragonfly are playing. On the strength of this first show, I don't regret that decision at all.

While Heather "did her face" (did I hear that right???) for the main show, a second support band, the Raggy Anns, played another half-hour set. This is a male/female duo, playing a set of fun, energetic, guitar-based rock and roll with a definite retro feel—it made me think of the more musically-intelligent end of the punk spectrum from the late 70s. This was apparently their first gig ever, and they sometimes seemed a bit hesitant and gave the impression that they were making it up as they went along, but I can't fault them musically. And you've got to love a band that warns you "This next song will have some mistakes in it", and apologise for buying a pink guitar but "It was cheap".

Finally the main event, The Heather Findlay Band, took the stage for 90 minutes of thunderingly powerful arrangements of her back catalogue. The power of the full band, after two acoustic support acts, was stunning, Alex Cromarty's drums alone threatening to overload the venue's sound system. It's loud, but in a good way.

Despite occasional confusion over cues, the band is musically superb. Stu Fletcher on bass is a superb addition to their ranks, his busy and complex playing clearly rising above the wall of sound the rest of the band was creating. It's harder to comment on new guitar player Simon Snaize because his sound was more buried in the mix, but I certainly have no complaints about what I heard.

And the band is professional enough to soldier on with an instrumental version of Cellophane when Heather is helpless with fits of giggles (I have no idea what was going on) and has to abandon the vocal. Like I said—imperfections. But the sort of imperfections that make a gig unique and memorable.

Almost all the song arrangements were very heavy and twin-guitar based, with Chris Johnson only moving to keyboards for a couple of songs. Most of the set will have been familiar to anyone who saw the band last year. They play all five songs (I think) from The Phoenix Suite, with the rest of the set drawn from a decade's worth of Heather's songs with Mostly Autumn, a couple of Odin Dragonfly songs given rock-band arrangements, and one new song.

The new song (no idea what it's called) is very promising, with very Led-Zep-esque syncopated rhythms, distorted guitars, and bit of backwards organ playing I believe (you have to see it performed to understand what that means).

For the Mostly Autumn songs, Heather is quite clearly trying to get away from the "Mostly Autumn sound" and stamp her own arrangement on them, and they all work well, though I think they missed a trick by not getting Angela up to play on Caught in a Fold. (Come on, it needs a flute part. It really does.) (Well, everything sounds better with more flute.)

Best surprises of the evening were Another Life, with a vocal performance that left everybody's jaws on the floor, a shortened arrangement of Evergreen performed by just Heather with Chris on acoustic guitar, and the final song of the set, the epic Carpe Diem in all its raw emotional glory, sounding better than it ever has since... well, since Heather left Mostly Autumn.

Because she can do it all. She can do the acoustic songs, she can do the power ballads, she can do full-on rocking Robert Plant impersonations, and she can make you cry just by wailing wordlessly at you.

This is the greatest singer in the world today.

Yes, she really is that good.