Your Bike Shed, York

10 December 2016

Leather'o have been on my list of bands to see for quite a while, but either the time or the place always worked out wrong until now.

So here I am in oddly-named Your Bike Shed for the first time, a venue which is the basement of a café in York and decorated to match the name (!). It's not a massive room, and around 50 people are squeezed in seated around tables, with the band standing flat on the floor, no raised stage. But it's not as bad as that makes it sound, as I have a perfect sight line to all the musicians, and I don't need to get up anyway so it doesn't matter that we’re wedged in so tightly! My only complaints are that a small section of the crowd was here to have a chat rather than listen to the music (that's a really common complaint these days) and that the man who was filming part of the gig did an awful lot of distracting moving around (I felt really sorry for the people right behind him, who actually cheered when he finally left). But the sound was surprisingly good for what's obviously not a purpose-built venue, and the level of amplification was just right to mostly drown out the talkers without being uncomfortably loud.

I was expecting an evening of folk music, but the first band, Stillhouse, defied those expectations. It's a trio of mandolin, guitar and double bass (with two of them singing), and apart from one tune that sounded like it could be traditional bluegrass, everything else they played was decidedly modern, and mostly written by the band themselves.

The playing was exceptional, with some dazzling instrumental work, I mean quite literally jaw-dropping at times. They really rocked, and set a high bar for Leather'o to live up to.

As expected, Leather'o are a band firmly rooted in traditional music, and showed it right from the first song, The Fox, a song so old that I even sang it at school! (I'll quickly point out that I wasn't at school in the 15th century, which is when it probably dates from.)

Leather'o are a four-piece band who play a variety instruments between them: various flutes and whistles, accordion, guitar, fiddle, and electric bass guitar. And somehow, I’d got the impression that they were a purely instrumental band, but as I've already mentioned they did include some songs in the mostly-instrumental set, all sung by Angela Gordon.

(I suppose I have to come clean that the only reason I'm here is because Angela is in the band, and you may be aware that I've seen her once or twice before with other bands. Because, much as I love folk music, I wouldn't normally come all the way to York to hear a random band I know nothing about.)

But whatever my reason for coming, I'm not disappointed by the band. All four play brilliantly. The set is up-tempo and energetic and full of beautiful melodies. There is no lead instrument as such; the arrangements are all built around ensemble playing, and they have the perfect combination of instrumental sounds for that. I knew a small amount of the material they played but a lot of it was unfamiliar to me, but it's the kind of music that's instantly accessible even if you're hearing it for the first time. If I had to pick a highlight I’d be torn between the gypsy fiddle tune (I completely forget the name, though I'm sure they announced it) and the song Blackbird (which I already knew ... but here I'm hearing it performed by one of my favourite singers ...).

At around the time they announced they were going to do a Led Zeppelin song (yes, really!) and I realised I was going to hear Angela sing Gallows Pole (because what else could it be?), I began to suspect this might turn out to be the best concert I’ve ever seen ...

But what convinced me of it was the last two tunes, when Leather'o were joined by Stillhouse, and all seven musicians played a couple of reels to end the show (well, one was a reel, I'm not sure how to classify the other one). Beautiful, energetic, upbeat playing, you can't listen to something like that and not come out of the gig feeling completely euphoric. That's what good folk music does, and really that's what all gigs should do. It's all you need.