Heather Findlay

The Crescent Club, York

21 December 2016

My year ended as it began, with Heather Findlay in a freezing location in the wilds of Yorkshire. Well ok, the middle of York isn't that wild, but oh my God the venue was freezing. Sorry, I have to get that out of the way, because it was really, really cold. The audience sat huddled in coats, Angela Gordon apologised that if she was playing the wrong notes it was because her fingers were cold, and Stu Fletcher stuck his hands under his armpits whenever he wasn't playing. Good grief.

Apart from that, the venue wasn't that bad. The seating was well laid out, the stage high enough to see the band clearly, and there was no noticeable noise from the bar (hurrah!). There may have been some noise of teeth chattering. The stage lighting was maybe slightly dark, but there were fairy lights arranged around the microphones so it all looked pretty, and the cold just made it seem more seasonal I suppose. Did I mention it was cold?

It was a gig plagued with annoying technical issues. Heather lost her in-ear monitoring, on-stage monitors appeared to randomly lose instruments, instruments occasionally dropped out of the main sound mix, and at one awful moment the piano just stopped working completely. (Right at the start of Waiting For the Snow. I mean, go on, pick my favourite song to fail on why don't you?) Luckily the piano cut in again after a few seconds and Angela picked up the vocal again seamlessly. Did I mention that Waiting for the Snow is my favourite song? A more disastrous failure was at the end of Winter Is King, a Mostly Autumn song I have never, ever heard played live—possibly the only Mostly Autumn song I have never heard played live! They got through the verses, and Heather sounded perfect singing up at the top of her range, then at the big instrumental climax, Martin Ledger couldn't hear the flute in his monitor and the arrangement fell apart and the song just ... stopped! Right at the best bit. Disaster! There seemed to be a lot of down-time between songs, too, partly because of these issues I think and also because there was a lot of movement of musicians between instruments (and maybe it felt longer because we were waiting in the cold!), so the concert finished pretty late.

But more important than all these issues, and making it all worthwhile, is one simple fact: Heather Findlay is just the best singer in the world.

More details? It seems like I've written a lot already. But ok, the late, late train home is really slow, so I can write more.

The show opened with Odin Dragonfly (Heather Findlay: vocals, guitar, whistle; and Angela Gordon: vocals, flute, piano), and I didn't note how long they played but it felt like about an hour, meaning they ran through almost their whole catalogue of original material and covers. Highlights were Waiting for the Snow (obviously), and Heather's beautiful version of Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat. I haven't heard her sing it for 10 years and it's just heart-stoppingly perfect. And their distinctive vocal duet on Witch's Promise which gives it an other-worldly feel (and I'm convinced they swap octaves in the middle, Angela going low to Heather's high line). Surprise of the set was a guest appearance by Scarlett Gordon on electric guitar for a song called ... I think Sirens of the Sea. Calculating from when Angela left Mostly Autumn, I don't think Scarlett can be more than eight years old, and she's already not only talented but also extremely professional. Mother and daughter should both be very proud.

After an hour from my two favourite musicians in the whole world, the only thing that could top it would be a two-hour set from my two favourite musicians in the whole world. And that's exactly what happened, of course. The Heather Findlay Band is Heather Findlay (vocals, guitar, whistles, recorder), Angela Gordon (vocals, flutes, whistles, keyboard), Stu Fletcher (bass guitar), Henry Rogers (drums, bells (!), harmonium, keyboard, vocals), Sarah Dean (harp, recorders, keyboard, vocals, and a stringed instrument that's bugging me because I have no idea what it is), and Martin Ledger (guitars, mandolin, vocals). Plus guest appearances from Scarlett Gordon and Harlan and Drayke Findlay (age ... I don't know ... ten and six?) on backing vocals for a couple of songs (you've probably already figured out "la la la" on Shrinking Violet). As I might have mentioned, there was a lot of moving around between instruments on the cramped stage, but that just shows the versatility of the band, which meant that we got everything from unaccompanied vocal pieces to acoustic folky songs to hard rock to even the odd proggy bit. I doubt that many bands would attempt this diversity of styles in one gig, but Heather knows her audience and knows that we love all of this stuff, and the variety is why we're here. Well, that and the fact that she's the best singer in the world. And there's a lot of humour and comfortable banter between band members, even in the face of technical gremlins, and a friendly approach that reaches out to encompass the audience from the stage, because she knows she's playing to a home crowd and we all love her.

I was expecting a set mostly the same as that from earlier in the year, with one or two new songs, but it surprised me by being a lot more than that. The opening number was the quiet, laid-back I've Seen Your Star (Angela on alto flute I think, Henry on harmonium), a really unusual choice where many bands would kick off with an up-tempo song to wake everybody up, but it worked beautifully to set the tone of the gig, and the set then built in energy over the next few songs until they were properly rocking with Mostly Autumn songs such as Caught in a Fold. I'm not going to give the set list in order, I'm terrible at that, so I'll just randomly mention Lake Sunday (beautiful vocal melody) and Caught in a Fold (flute!) as the expected highlights, and then move on to the unexpected highlights.

There's a new song Dark Eyes, which is a beautiful ballad (ballad in the traditional sense, not in the slow-rock-song sense) about sailors and sirens. The other new song I am Snow is simply stunning, easily as good as anything Heather has ever written. It's a big, complex arrangement that I think will take a lot of plays to fully appreciate, but with such a beautiful vocal melody at its heart that it's an instant favourite on first listen.

Dredging up surprises from the past, I've already mentioned Winter is King (which sadly didn't work) and we also got Mostly Autumn's Eyes of the Forest (no, wait, that was in the Odin Dragonfly set). And Above the Blue, which I would have said was Heather's most beautiful vocal moment, except

I've claimed before that Heather can sing anything, any range any style. But if you really pinned me down, I would have admitted that, no, probably she doesn't have the right range to sing the soprano part on Gaudete.

Ok, wrong, wrong, I would have been completely wrong. My jaw must have been somewhere near the floor as she sings an utterly perfect unaccompanied version of Gaudete (in the Steeleye Span arrangement, obviously; Sarah, Martin and Henry taking the other parts) with her voice up somewhere I don't think I've ever heard her go before. Just unbelievably ... just perfect.

I know she's made a big deal of covering a Sandy Denny song on the new album (they play Winter Winds from Fotheringay tonight, and yes it's a beautiful song). But I already knew she would do Sandy Denny effortlessly.

But Gaudete. That was just unexpected and astonishing.

The last three songs of the set are the three best songs she's ever written, and the three most epic: I Am Snow, The Illusion's Reckoning, and of course Shrinking Violet, one after the other. And then that's it, no encore but they've played for two hours and I don't think there's a song that could have followed those three without feeling anti-climactic.

Best concert I've ever seen. Merry Christmas :-)