Mostly Autumn

Grand Opera House, York

2 December 2006

Bah. Humbug. What's wrong with Christmas these days? Christmas lights are up in November. November! It shouldn't be allowed. I've spent the last few weeks going round with my eyes closed so I wouldn't have to look at the unseasonably-early decorations and my ears plugged so I wouldn't have to listen to the unseasonably-inappropriate canned music. Humbug, I say. Humbug! Christmas doesn't start in November. Christmas starts...

Well, this year, Christmas started at about 9.40pm on Saturday 2nd December, when Heather Findlay, Olivia Sparnenn, and Angela Gordon took the stage for a perfectly beautiful arrangement of Silent Night. And the perfection was maintained for the next hour and a half, through to the perfect encore of Fairytale of New York, wrapping up what was honestly the best half of a concert I've ever seen.

Ok, I'll explain that last statement: the first half of the concert mostly didn't work for me. It wasn't until the second half (beginning with Silent Night) when everything came together and became the kind of show I expect from this band.

The show opened with a new song (Fading Colours) and I wasn't impressed at all. Sorry, guys. I couldn't follow the lyrics, the sound was too chaotic to pick out a tune, and there wasn't even a memorable riff. (Nice images on the projection screen, though.) Not a good opener for the show and not a very good omen for the new album. Uh-oh...

In the next couple of songs it became obvious that it wasn't the song that was at fault: it was the sound mix. It was very poor, much worse than I expect from the Opera House. This was obvious on songs like Dark Before the Dawn and Caught in a Fold, where all the bits that make those songs stand out were buried in the general mush. The first half of Out of the Inn, just flute and guitar, worked fine, but as soon as the full band sound came in... just mush again. Damn it. Consequently I can't comment fairly on the other new songs in the first half because I don't think I was hearing them properly. One called Open Road (I think) sounded like a very ordinary and un-memorable pub-band's rock song, for example. Though the one that closed the first half (Walk with a Storm) showed a lot of promise -- many changes of mood and tempo with a wonderful instrumental climax (Bryan's Gibson taking the part of the "violin" in a traditional folky trio with Liam's acoustic and Angela's flute). But still too messy to completely appreciate it.

If I had to pick out a highlight from the first half, I suspect the choice would surprise people: a new song, Silver Glass, which was written by "newcomer" Chris Johnson. If this is the kind of song he writes, I've got no worries about the post-Jennings Mostly Autumn. It's a beautiful melody with minimal instrumentation (which is probably why it stood out despite the poor sound mix) and nice lyrics. Chris also takes the lead vocal on it. It's the first time I've heard his voice, and it's a good one -- a kind of high tenor, I suppose -- but I'll need to hear it more before I make a proper judgement. Still, adding a third lead vocal to the Mostly Autumn sound should be interesting...

Another brief word about Chris before I move on: it looked like he did a lot more on keyboards than in the shows I saw back in March. Angela is still doing a big part of the work but the split now seems to be more even than it was previously. He's also doing backing vocals now, though only occasionally. I would have thought he could have added more to the harmonies, considering that his voice is so different from anybody else in the band. Perhaps he was doing more but it got lost in the mix. He did feature in the multi-part harmony of Silent Night and it worked very well against the girls' voices.

And one final bit of general criticism -- I've heard Heather sing better. Was she suffering from a cold? Or was it just the bad sound letting her down?

But let's be honest, I'd rather listen to a sub-par Heather than any other singer on the planet so... not really a criticism.

Ok, enough. I'm getting far too analytical, which is a sign that I was concentrating too much on the sound rather than the emotion of the evening -- which is a sign that the sound was interfering with my enjoyment. All that changed in the second set. I don't know if they spent the 20-minute break fixing the problem but for whatever reason it all got far, far better. I've already mentioned how beautiful Silent Night was. And I couldn't find fault with anything after that. I was in that kind of happy place you're supposed to be in at a Mostly Autumn concert. There were four more new songs, none of which I disliked, and two (Ghost and Dreaming I think) which could easily be counted among their best songs. Yes, that good. I won't even attempt to describe them because words simply won't do them justice. From the classics we got Shrinking Violet and Heroes Never Die, neither of which I will ever say a bad word about, and Carpe Diem (yes, it's a "classic" now) which comes saturated with so much raw emotional power that I can't listen to it without crying. For songs like this, I can ignore and forgive the ropey first half.

And one solitary encore (I got the impression they wanted to do more but were running late): Fairytale of New York which I've already mentioned. Always a great song in any case, but it works so well for this band because it really sounds like one of their own. They play it with fun, energy, and emotion, and all the stuff that makes this the best band in the world. And Angela can play peals of church bells on the flute. Honestly, how can concerts get any better than this?

This review was brought to you with the accompaniment of Silent Night and Fairytale of New York on endless repeat, courtesy of the Mostly Autumn Christmas single now available at Mostly Autumn Records dot com (plug, plug).