Mostly Autumn

The Sage, Gateshead

5 September 2014

Another year, another Mostly Autumn line-up. Anne-Marie Helder rejoins after a short absence, on keyboard, flute, banana (I am not making this up) and backing vocals. Chris Johnson is back in after a slightly longer absence, on guitar and backing vocals. Bryan, Olivia, Iain and Andy there as always, of course. Drummer Alex Cromarty is in his second year with the band, and continues to lift the sound to heights they haven't reached in a long time. More on Alex later...

From the first song, Deep in Borrowdale, they were on top form. Next up was Drops of the Sun, and then Never the Rainbow... it occurs to me that this was the first song I ever heard Olivia sing with Mostly Autumn, and the first time I realised what her voice could do. Her power, range, and beauty have always been incomparable, but tonight I think her voice is taking on a greater depth and maturity with every passing year. She's sounding better than ever (and that's not easy, considering how high she had already set the bar).

A couple of things became evident by around about the fourth song in. First is that they aren't playing anything from the new album, and second is that Alex Cromarty gives every song, new or old, a new lease of life, his powerful and inventive drumming making everything sound new and fresh. My friend leaned over and whispered that she was going to start the Alex Cromarty fan club, and I offered to be the first member. He's a huge asset to the band, and certainly my favourite drummer of the current generation. As I think I've said many times before, ever since the first time I saw him with the Heather Findlay Band.

The first half of the set continued on very similar lines to last year's set list, mysteriously still nothing from Dressed in Voices (everybody agrees it's their best album for years; why not play something from it?), but a good mix of newer material and "classics" (Evergreen, Nowhere to Hide, Never the Rainbow, The Last Climb with a sublime flute solo). With The Rain Song, accompanied by just a piano, a flute, and Chris on backing vocals, it occurs to me that the first time I ever saw Chris Johnson on stage he was accompanying Olivia singing The Rain Song, supporting Mostly Autumn. So much tangled history for this band...

They close the first half, as has become a tradition, with Questioning Eyes (does that qualify as a "classic" yet?). As the band left for a short break, Bryan said that they would be playing the entire new album as the second set, and explained the concept behind the album.

It's been years since Mostly Autumn played an album in its entirety — I think the last one must have been Storms Over Still Water (2005? I can't remember...) — but Dressed in Voices deserves the treatment, because not only is all the material consistently stronger than anything they have done in years, it needs to be played together for the "concept" to work. So, a bold move, but a good one I'm thinking as they take the stage for the second half... now, can they pull it off?

Oh my God, yes. It's absolutely stunning. They play the whole album through in order, with no talking between numbers, often with no break for applause between numbers (it was the kind of situation where you don't actually want to applaud, for fear it will break the mood). The material is necessarily dark and emotional, and they wring every bit of emotion out of it, and play their hearts out. The sound on Saturday Night is a bit over-saturated and the lyrics are hard to follow, which is a pity as that sets up the concept's story (it's really hard to get a bad sound in The Sage, so I don't know what's going on, maybe it's just my ears), but then everything clicks into place and it just... works. Olivia's vocal on Running is spine-tingling, and the menacing keyboard riff of Home, with the heart-wrenching lyric from Bryan, gives me goose bumps.

And... I feel like I'm watching a Mostly Autumn I haven't actually seen for years. The textures in the music, the way they pare the band down to leave just three people on stage when the song needs it, playing acoustic when the song needs it, Bryan and Olivia doubling up whispered vocals like the greatest vocal partnership you've ever heard, the power, and the emotion, and the intricacy of the arrangements ... this is the band I fell in love with. I never stopped loving them, but I always felt like something from the early days was missing, and last night I found it again.

Best live band in the world.

And of course they didn't play the album "straight", note-for-note, because what's the point of that? Arrangements were shifted to fit the live setting and solos were improvised and extended. Because otherwise, what's the point of a gig?

And the absolute highlight of the set was (surprisingly) Skin on Skin, which featured a drum solo (when did Mostly Autumn ever play a drum solo?) then an extended instrumental climax, led by drums so powerful that they almost drowned out the guitars. Alex Cromarty is absolutely amazing. Apply here for fan club membership.

And when most bands choose to end a gig on a big climax, Mostly Autumn ended the set exactly as the album ends, with a whispered piano chord. And Bryan says "the end", just in case we were too shell-shocked to realise it.

By now they'd played over an hour in the second set (longer than the album itself lasts) and I'm pretty sure they had run over the venue's time limit. So rather than go off stage and wait for a call for a encore, Bryan went straight into Heroes Never Die (a slightly abbreviated version, I felt), and finally ended the gig with Tonight (just in case we had forgotten in the last ten minutes that Olivia is the best vocalist in rock at the moment).

They all looked so ridiculously happy when they took the group bow, and they deserved to be. It's still the best live band in the world, and this was the best concert I've ever been to.

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