Heather Findlay

The Musician, Leicester

10 April 2016

I've been to The Musician before, and it's a nice venue, well laid out, decent sound (for a club venue) and decent sized stage. But I knew it was a low stage, so if I was to have any chance at all of seeing the band I needed to be at the front. The front row of a small venue is always a trade-off: get a (probably) worse sound mix but a better view. So it's not always the best thing. But tonight it was exactly right. Getting there early to be about eight people back from the front of the queue, then ignoring the bar (of course) and barely looking at the merchandise desk long enough to say "Hi" to Roger Newport, meant I was not only front but also dead centre of the stage. Actually this felt a bit too close, the stage is small enough that I would be literally three feet from Heather, so I took two paces back and hoped that no inconsiderate tall person would move in front of me. (No-one did; somebody did stand between me and the Divine Angela's keyboard, but he wasn't to know so I let it pass.)

There were two support acts, both from people I've seen before and was happy to see again. First, Sarah Dean played a short set (harp and voice), only four songs but all of them new to me (it's years since I last saw her, and she's evidently been recording at least two CDs of new material since then). A solo harpist might be an unconventional opening act for a rock gig, but the audience all appreciated it and were (surprisingly) quiet throughout the set.

Next act was Halo Blind, Chris Johnson's current band. I find them hard to categorise. Not prog rock by a long chalk, but nor are their songs straightforward three-chord rock. Everything Chris touches has an intelligence about it, his songs are never ordinary and always do something unusual, and he's backed by a band easily capable of doing his music justice. The Halo Blind songs teeter between complex instrumental interplay and bursts of manic energy, and are full of unexpected ways of using sound. It's an excellent, powerful set that lasts about 45 minutes.

So, a short break while Halo Blind's vast array of guitar effects pedals are removed (or, in Chris's case, just moved backwards) to make room for the Heather Findlay Band. There isn't actually much equipment change going on, as the bands are sharing a drum kit, bass guitar, keyboard, and microphones. Which is useful, because the band are doing all the work themselves. Heather flits on stage wafting incense sticks around while she looks for somewhere to stick them. Angela comes on carrying multiple instruments, and I already know this is going to be the best concert I've ever seen. Plus, despite doing my best not to read the set lists laid out on the stage, I've just caught sight of two words that guarantee it: "Carpe" and "Diem".

It's finally all ready, and the band sneak back off and wait to come on when the intro tape plays — the spoken-word Every Corner from The Illusion's Reckoning — and they go straight into Island.

I'll be honest, I don't think Island is anywhere near Heather's best song, despite it being chosen as the single from the album. It sort of plods along sounding like a late-period Fleetwood Mac song, but Heather's a better singer than Stevie Nicks (she won't agree with me, but she's wrong and I'm right) and her band is better than Fleetwood Mac, and they can do better. But despite my reservations about the song, the band sounds great, better than great, the performance is really powerful, the sound is loud but well balanced (later on it will get almost painfully distorted in a couple of songs, but mostly it's perfect), and Heather is just being Heather, and I've waited too long for this.

They run through the entire The Illusion's Reckoning album in order, and every song reveals some different aspect of Heather's voice. She rocks through the climax of Veil of Ghosts. Is beautifully restrained for Lake Sunday (a vocal melody that would have been a massive hit if it was released by Joni Mitchell in 1968 (but Heather is a better singer than Joni Mitchell)). Screams out Mountain Spring. Pushes right up to the top of her range to whisper through I've Seen Your Star. Doesn't do anything except heavy breathing (!) for the instrumental Island (Reprise). And The Illusion's Reckoning is a 10-minute epic that she sings all the way through — there are no long instrumental breaks, it's 10 minutes of singing with barely chance to catch a breath. It's the highlight of the show. Well, one of them.

It's Heather's show, she's who we've come to see and she dominates the stage, but she's supported by a band every bit as good as she is. On lead guitar, John Mitchell, who has a beautiful tone and wrings every bit of emotion out of solos that are either flashy or tastefully restrained, as required by the song. He's incredible, and it's quite a coup for Heather to get someone of his stature in her band. Also on guitar, backing vocals, and occasionally switching to keyboards, Chris Johnson, and you already know how good I think he is. On bass, Stu Fletcher, relentlessly energetic and playing very prominent melody lines in the way that great bass players do. Sarah Dean sings backing vocals and plays occasional harp and recorder. Alex Cromarty is not only the best rock drummer around at the moment, he also sings co-lead vocals on Island and Veil of Ghosts. And plays harmonium on I've Seen Your Star. Yes, really. I'm pretty sure by now that there isn't anything he can't do.

And, clearly stacking the deck to ensure she got a good review from me, Heather has my second-favourite singer in the whole world on backing vocals. And keyboards, flute, alto flute, recorder, low whistle, and just general divineness. Angela Gordon.

The whole set is stunning — but that's not the whole show. With the new album played through, it's time for some old favourites. Look away now if you don't want the surprise to be spoiled.

Carpe Diem. Chris plays the piano, leaving Angela free to play the "pipes" part on alto flute. John Mitchell's solo is stunning. But Heather ...

You know, when Mostly Autumn released Storms Over Still Water, ten years ago, I was dissatisfied with it, because I thought Heather spent too much time screaming and not enough time singing. Until I heard it live, and heard the power of Carpe Diem. And here it is again. Heather five feet in front of me, screaming through the massive wordless climax of the song, the best song she's ever sung, the best performance I've ever heard from her. From anyone. Ever. I can't take my eyes off her even with all the flutey and guitary things going on. Just astonishing.

Next, a couple of Odin Dragonfly songs, Magpie and Magnolia Half Moon, but played by the full band, transforming them into powerful rock numbers — though still with the Findlay/Gordon vocal duet at their heart.

Mona Lisa is the only song from The Phoenix Suite — but it's the best one from it, and it once again showcases Chris Johnson's unique approach to music as he plays the unconventional guitar wall-of-sound required by the song. Then Chris sings the last verse and the song culminates in Heather, Chris, and Angela competing in a who-can-sing-the-highest contest (Angela wins).

I'm sure I've missed something here, the curse of my bad set-list memory, but it's two o'clock in the morning so give me a break. Anyway the important thing to mention is that they played the best possible flute song you could want them to play, Caught in a Fold. And I will say no more about it. Other than: flute!

And then, a total surprise (though not, in hindsight), John Mitchell duets with Heather on Why Do We Stay from his Lonely Robot album (which Heather sang on, in case you didn't know). It's a beautiful, emotional song, and a great idea to include it in the set.

Finally, last song — really the last, they've played one hour 45 minutes and there will be no encores — and it's the one Heather hinted she would sing, and the one song I really wanted her to sing, the one I always want, the best thing she's ever done and the best Mostly Autumn song there ever was and the best thing ever there will be ever and just how you want the concert to end because it hasn't been the best concert I've ever seen if it hasn't made me cry, and there's a recorder trio from Heather, Angela and Sarah Dean, and an actual musical box at the end which is a perfect idea and she's just perfect and oh, I didn't say what the song was. Shrinking Violet.

The end.