Jo Quail

Hug & Pint, Glasgow

14 May 2023

The basement of the Hug & Pint is smaller than last night's venue, and it's absolutely packed. Luckily I remembered it was small and with a low stage, so I got there early to claim a spot at the front.

The second night of a tour (well, my second night; Jo Quail has done more) always feels different, because you know what to expect but you're still wondering what will be different. Live music is never the same twice, or if it is then you're probably seeing the wrong bands.

So, I promised I would talk about the support band, Dead Space Chamber Music. I believe they normally play as a quartet, but for this tour there are only two of them: a guitarist and a singer/percussionist. I don't know their recorded music, so I can't say how they've adapted it for a two-person format, but there is no evidence that anything is lacking. The pieces sound as if they've always been played this way. The guitar ranges from delicate picking with volume swells to thunderous e-bowed distortion, and everything in between. The percussion comes from a variety of objects, some as bizarre as a pile of broken crockery (not the strangest "instrument" I've ever seen, but right up there), and some devices I can't even put a name to. The sound is also enhanced by atmospheric backing tapes featuring the sound of wind and rain, and by electronic drones and other effects.

The vocals cover a range of styles from almost tribal chanting to something almost like mediaeval polyphony (I know, you can't have polyphony with one voice, but sometimes there's a strong feeling of ars nova to the vocal lines). Then she goes off into tribal shrieking again, and it's just an astonishing mix of sounds. A lot of the vocals are wordless, and even when there are words I can't reliably pick them out. Some might be Latin, or I supposed even old French, or even a made up language. It's hard to tell, but it doesn't matter: it's the sound of the voice that's important.

The duo never speak, not even to introduce themselves or the songs, and that adds to the immersion in the whole performance. The pieces of music flow into each other, but even when there is an apparent end to a piece, nobody claps. But the applause at the end of the 40-minute set leaves no doubt that we all appreciated it. It just felt wrong to break the spell with applause until it was all over.

Certainly one of the most unusual bands I've ever witnessed.

Dead Space Chamber Music

And so on to Jo Quail, who plays a slightly shorter set than last night I think. I'm not going to describe the music in detail, I did that yesterday. Broadly speaking the set is the same as last night. It starts again with White Salt Stag, then a reworking of Rex Infractus from her first album, and then moves through various pieces from I think all of her albums (with the obvious omission of any of The Cartographer, which is scored for a much larger group of musicians). But there are a couple of surprises, that make the night completely different from last night.

For the acoustic part of the show, she suggests she might sit in the middle of the crowd. This is enthusiastically received, and somehow a space is cleared for her in the utterly packed room so she can climb down from the stage with her cello and a stool and, literally, sit in the middle of the crowd for the two acoustic peices. I can't see a thing because I'm right next to the stage and she's not on it, but I'm not unhappy, the unamplified cello is more than loud enough to reach me and it seems fair to give people further back a chance to see something.

The highlight of the set for me, again, is the duet with an improvised wordless vocal from Dead Space Chamber Music's singer. She has an extraordinary voice, and it blends perfectly with the cello (playing very softly and simply on this piece), and the effect is very moving.

But the real highlight of the set is unexpectedly hearing my (probably) favourite piece of her music in the encore. She finishes the set as last night (with Mandrel Cantus, an ideal, powerful set closer), and says that it's not worth going backstage (apparently it's just "a cupboard" and freezing cold), so do we just want another song now? The answer is predictable, and presumably she's intending to use the same two encore songs as last night, but somebody shouts, Adder Stone, and after looking doubtful, and protesting that she has never played it with this new loop station, she searches for the right settings, and just plays it. And maybe there are a couple of technical hitches in the playing, but it doesn't matter, it's clearly unprepared but it sounds magnificent, from the driving riffs of the first section, to the unadorned acoustic middle section, to the immense climax . . . look, I'm not going to describe it properly, just go to Bandcamp and buy Caldera, you won't regret it.

And because because it was completely unexpected, a true encore rather than a rehearsed part of the set, and because it was so perfect, it was the absolute highlight of the night. Amazing.

Jo Quail