Heather Findlay

Aces and Eights, London

14 April 2017

I've been listening to Heather Findlay for half my adult life and I've seen her do every kind of gig from one voice and one guitar up to a nine-piece rock band with a choir and string section, and you'd think she couldn't surprise me any more.

And here she is, surprising me over and over again in a gig that was nothing like I was imagining. I thought we would get a quiet, acoustic show, but nobody seems to have told Heather.

The show was filmed for a DVD (there were four cameras, obvious but not intrusive) but I don't know if the film will capture the atmosphere. She promised "intimate", and the basement of the Aces & Eights pub lives up to that description. It's a tiny room, packed to capacity with about 40 people, every one appearing to be a devoted fan (not much chance of selling any merchandise tonight, we've all got it all). Despite the squeeze and the increasing heat, the room was actually really nice, with clear views of the stage (the audience was seated), and a great sound with a perfect level of amplification for the space. The amplification was lower than you would get from a rock gig, and this did present an interesting problem on the big climaxes to songs like Caught in a Fold and Evergreen, when Heather's screams threatened to drown out the instruments. In her acoustic gigs, she'll typically use her "indoors" voice. Tonight might have been nominally acoustic, but it felt like a rock gig and she was using her rock voice—you actually could see her holding back, and even moving back from the microphone (it didn't make any difference) to keep the vocal sound without the volume, and you realise how powerful her voice is when she wants it to be. Look, she just sang some Led Zep, and it was phenomenal.

Ok, I'm spoiling all the surprises right at the start. So let's get all the surprises out of the way: yes, they played Caught in a Fold. How do you play Caught in a Fold without Angela Gordon? Martin Ledger plays the flute parts on guitar. And on Bitterness Burnt too.

This is why the gig was unique. The song arrangements. Playing as a trio (Heather on guitar, recorder and low whistle, Sarah Dean on harp and percussion, Martin on electric guitar, all three of them singing), they managed to make a full band sound on songs that I really thought they wouldn't be able to play without a full band. Yes, we've all heard acoustic Evergreen, but this didn't feel like acoustic Evergreen, it felt like rock Evergreen. It's just astonishing how full and rich and complex the sound is. The gig opened with Island from the Mantra Vega album, which is just a big AOR ballad that needs a big, full, keyboard-heavy sound, and they made it work. Martin taking the second vocal part and Sarah essentially playing the keyboard part (and probably bass guitar part too) on harp, and it just... worked. Worked so well, I'm still overwhelmed by it hours later. By the morning I'll start to suspect I dreamed it.

There were a lot more songs from Mantra Vega: Veil of Ghosts, Lake Sunday, I've Seen Your Star ... and the two new songs from I Am Snow: Dark Eyes and I Am Snow, the latter again being a brilliant rearrangement of a big, complex, multi-textured rock song for a trio with no drums or keyboards. Martin Ledger, brilliant on electric guitar, does all riffs and solos you need for the rock feel, but it's only possible because Heather is handling so much guitar herself—more than I've ever seen her play in one gig before. She plays it on almost every song (I think she only puts it down twice all night, and that's to play whistle or recorder—sometimes she doesn't put it down to play recorder). Remember the days when she used to just strum a bit in the background on Spirit of Autumn Past? She's come on so far from that, she's playing not just rhythm behind Martin but intricate parts like the long intro to Evergreen (with a beautiful vibrato), normally played by one of the best guitar players of modern times (Bryan Josh? Never heard of him.)

The first half of the set is around an hour long and it's all this recent material, then there's a brief interval before the second half goes back into older territory: Bitterness Burnt, Caught in a Fold (I think I've mentioned those already), Magnolia Half Moon, Eyes of the Forest ... Unoriginal Sin, which is another surprising arrangement that keeps all of its driving rhythm and rock feel ... and some covers.

Remember when Heather used to interpolate Rhiannon into the coda of Evergreen? Well now she's just singing it. Yes. all of it. The coda of Evergreen now gets Led Zeppelin's Babe I'm Gonna Leave You interpolated into it. Because, you know, Heather can sing anything better than anybody.

Complete left-field surprise is a duet with Dan Lucas (who I forgot to mention: he was the support act, excellent guitarist and singer with the perfect gravelly country-flavoured voice for his original country-flavoured songs). So, Dan came back on stage and sang Nick Cave to Heather's Kylie for Where the Wild Roses Grow. Fantastic song, unexpected choice but a perfect fit for their voices, and brilliantly performed.

Anyway, I've missed out loads (Oh! Yellow Time!) but I think I've said enough. The second hour ended with the extended, powerful climax of Evergreen interpolating a crowd sing-along and an unexpected bit of Led Zep, and that was it. Two hours of the most unexpected, ambitious, beautiful arrangements from the most beautiful singer in the world.

Sometimes there's a false start as they hit some problem or other, but it's all handled with good humour, and things like that add to the show rather than detract from it.

You're not going to get this feeling on a DVD. Heather stepped up to the microphone at the start of the gig and said "Hello Wembley!" and we all cracked up, and that set the tone for the whole evening, a good-humoured, friendly, yes "intimate", atmosphere. With one of the most astonishing performances I've ever seen from Heather thrown in for good measure. I'm just so happy I went. Best concert I've ever seen. Best Heather I've ever heard. Just best. Thank you.