Mostly Autumn

Grand Opera House, York

13 November 2015

The first time I saw Mostly Autumn was in this venue 15 years ago, supporting Ritchie Blackmore (whatever happened to him anyway?). Three years later they had grown big enough to headline the venue themselves and I have seen them here every year since then. The Opera House gig is always the highlight of my gig calendar. Even when I've seen the band several other times in a year, the end-of-year Opera House gig is always something special and different. And last night was no exception.

First I have to make the embarrassing admission that due to a bit of a cock-up on the transportation front I arrived late! As I got to the Opera House, I could already hear music reverberating through the building! A helpful usher pointed at my seat, right in the middle of row H (excellent location), but rather than disrupt an entire row of people while the band was on stage, I took a seat in a half-empty row at the back. (No, the hall wasn't 100% packed. But it was pretty close to it.) (And obligatory annoyed aside about the number of people who do think it's ok to disrupt an entire row when the band is on stage: look, if your bladder is that weak then either skip the bar or book a seat at the end of the row. I mean, good grief people, you're not six years old, can't you sit still for one hour?)

Anyway, I'm here to write about the music. So, late arrival, but by my reckoning I only missed two songs, as the first set was the entire Dressed in Voices album played through, as they have been doing for their last couple of tours. So I caught the whole of Home (would have been a tragedy to miss that one, best song on the album) and I was immediately transfixed by the emotional intensity of the music, the dazzling light show, and the engrossing back projections. The sound in the hall is perfect and the menacing keyboard riff sent shivers up my spine. Yes, even playing the same set I've seen twice already this year, the Opera House gig is something special. But it gets better ...

I won't do a song-by-song account. I've done it in other reviews, and I wouldn't be adding anything I haven't already said: Dressed in Voices is an astonishing body of work, this line-up of the band is on fire, and, well, everything is just perfect. But there were some surprises (admittedly slightly spoilered by advance publicity) that need to be mentioned.

Skin On Skin, which has become the instrumental set-piece jam in the middle of the set, features a guest musician: Anna Phoebe on violin. The only way you could make Mostly Autumn a more perfect band is to add a violin player. I LOVE violins, and Anna Phoebe has just become my new favourite violinist. (Ok, I'm very fickle.) She plays a proper (not electric) fiddle and it sounds gorgeous driving the song's vaguely eastern riff and duetting with Bryan on slide guitar. And I'm not going to mention her visual impact, wearing a long black dress (as all the best musicians do) and no shoes (as all the best musicians do) and throwing herself about the stage and playing standing on one leg (umm...).

I'm so happy with all this, I almost forgot to mention Alex Cromarty's drum solo that always features in this song, an honest-to-God proper hard rock drum solo that sounds better every time I hear him.

Well, that's it for the Dressed in Voices set. So far so perfect, and the band takes a short break before the second half of the gig — actually the second two-thirds, because the first set lasted an hour but two hours were still to come. Yes, they played three hours of music. Opera House gigs: always something special.

The second set kicked off with only Iain on the stage, playing the unmistakable extended keyboard intro to The Night Sky, a song which rarely features in the live sets. Angela takes a long and beautiful flute solo (it's a flute-light night overall, but pieces like this make up for it) followed by Anna Phoebe playing the violin part.

Then a segment of the show that, although I knew it was coming, still managed to surprise and amaze me. Bryan told us that this is the 40th anniversary of the release of the album that was his greatest musical influence and inspiration, and they were going to play a few songs as a homage to that. The album was Wish You Were Here. And the band played a long, flowing instrumental section, instantly recognisable, that resolved into four of the most perfect notes ever played. Shine on you Crazy Diamond. Not a perfect, sterile recreation of the album sound, but a more raw, powerful performance. It sounded unbelievable. Another guest musician, Chris Backhouse, joined them on stage to play the saxophone part.

For this segment of the show, Olivia's microphone was moved to a platform at the rear left of the stage. I'm not sure why, other than to give Andy Smith more room to dash around the stage. She's joined by another backing singer — oddly not name-checked at any point so I couldn't tell you who it was — and they spend the entire set doing synchronised backing-singer dances (you know what I mean). Olivia is alone, however, for the most incredible vocal performance of the night: Great Gig in the Sky.

If you'd told me in advance that she was going to attempt this, I would have been sceptical. Despite my massive admiration for her voice, it's the wrong voice for it. But she doesn't try to make her voice sound like the original recording, she does it in her own voice, and it's a perfect fit. It's just astonishing. There are times when I'm thinking it sounds like "what if Ian Gillan sang Great Gig in the Sky?", and, trust me, from me I don't think it's possible to get a greater compliment.

Moving on, Iain and Andy are the stars of Sheep. Chris sings it, with a suitable snarl in his voice, but it's the keyboard and bass interplay that make the song (and I never write enough about Andy in my reviews, I'm really sorry, but he's been there for as long as I've been following the band and I just take it for granted that everything he plays will be musically flawless).

Bryan begins a riff that's so unexpected it takes me quite a while to figure out what it is: See Emily Play. The opening of the next song is unmistakable, though, as Bryan completely nails the echoey intro of Run Like Hell. The whole band joins in the shouts of "Run, Run, Run," and it looks like they're all having a tremendous amount of fun.

Chris on acoustic guitar plays Wish You Were here, and the band has one more surprise to pull out as Alex Cromarty sings the middle part! (You would never have expected that, would you?) Bryan invites the audience to join in, and I reckon most of us sing it all way through. We also sing all the way through the next song without being invited: Comfortably Numb. Chris and Olivia double up to sing the first voice and Bryan sings the second voice. And when it comes to that solo...

Ok, it's no secret that David Gilmour has been a huge influence on Bryan Josh, but Bryan's style isn't a clone of Gilmour's, it's his own style. So when he reaches the solo that should figure in the top ten of any clear-thinking rock fan, I've no doubt he could play it note perfectly if he wanted to, but he doesn't. He plays a Bryan Josh solo. And that's more than good enough for me, thank you. Fans with long memories will know this used to be a staple of the Mostly Autumn live set way back when, and they've long since (if you'll forgive me using this expression) made the song their own, in an arrangement that's a tremendous showcase of their very own instrumental prowess.

Surprisingly, that appears to be the end, and they say good night and leave the stage without any Mostly Autumn songs. But when Olivia's microphone is moved back front and centre, it's pretty clear they will come back for more. And they do, for a 30-minute encore that begins with The Gap is Too Wide. Probably the most rarely played Mostly Autumn song because of the forces required to do it justice, tonight they have Anna Phoebe's violin to fill in for an entire string section, and Olivia, Angela, Chris and the other backing singer make enough noise for an entire choir. Needless to say, they do it justice and it brings the house down. (And for a ten-minute song it feels surprisingly short.)

Evergreen follows, and there isn't anything I can say about it that I haven't said dozens of times before. Likewise the set-closing Heroes Never Die. There's a bit of on-stage discussion and Bryan tells us they are out of time, so I suspect we should have got Questioning Eyes too, as I don't think they've ever not played it since Olivia joined. But I'm not going to complain after three hours of music.

So ... how do I feel about "Mostly Floyd"? I think you all know, but I need to address it because when the Floyd set was announced in advance there was some minor Internet disgruntlement expressed. Something to do with it being a step backwards after the band had finally shed the "next Pink Floyd" label. Well, I don't see it that way at all. The Opera House gigs are always something special and unusual, and this continued in that tradition, and rather than feeling like riding on the coat-tails of the Floyd comparisons (which may have happened in the past), it felt like a genuine homage to a band that Bryan, at the least, clearly loves. And let's be honest, to all of us who met these songs back in our formative years (which must be everybody in that auditorium), hearing Wish you Were Here or Comfortably Numb is like meeting an old friend again, something that should always be welcome. These are some of the best rock songs ever written and, yes, honestly, like old friends.

But at the end of the day, the songs in the set that had the biggest impact on me last night? The Gap, Evergreen, Heroes. These songs are now my old friends.

Pink Floyd were a legendary, iconic band. But Mostly Autumn are the best band in the world today.