Mostly Autumn

The Assembly, Leamington Spa

13 December 2015

Some nights you just look at a blank screen and don't know how to put the feeling into words.

When Mostly Autumn announced that their Leamington gig would start at the ungodly hour of 4pm, I knew it was going to be a bit unusual, and even though I had a fair idea of what would be on offer it still took me by surprise.

When I got to the venue the band was still soundchecking, and yet there were already enough people ahead of me in the queue to mean I would be three or four people back from the stage. (It didn't matter. The Assembly has a high stage and I could see, if not everything, then everything I needed to see.) Looking backwards, the place seemed packed. Not shoulder-to-shoulder, can't-move packed, but comfortably packed. I'm useless at estimating capacity, but the hall is pretty cavernous so a very healthy crowd of die-hard fans had made the trip despite it being a Sunday, near Christmas, and an ungodly start time (did I mention it started at 4pm?). Even Bryan seemed discombobulated by the start time, as he came on with his usual "Good..." [long pause, then disbelievingly] "...afternoon."

I have just come out of the venue at... something after 10pm. The concert was over six hours long. Seriously. With a handful of short breaks, but otherwise continuous music for the whole time. So excuse any errors and omissions (not to mention typos) in the following, I'm kind of shell-shocked.

The advertised format was for Mostly Autumn to start with an acoustic set. To be honest, I was expecting just Bryan and Olivia to run through something like the set of the recent live acoustic album (obvious assumption, right?). Wrong.

The whole band came on and opened with Nowhere to Hide, with the only concession to "acoustic" being Bryan playing an acoustic guitar and Alex playing a cajon. Apart from that, "acoustic" Nowhere to Hide sounds remarkably like the regular version.

Acoustic Never the Rainbow is something completely different, though. Slowed down and with the whole character of the song changed, and a jazzy piano solo replacing the organ solo. Is it too soon to declare something the highlight of the set?

Yes, because what came next was just... good beyond my ability to predict. Each singer of the band — including occasional backing singer Hannah Hird — now got a solo spot to sing something of their own.

Olivia (with Iain, Angela and, um, Hannah I think) did The Rain Song. Ok, no great surprise, it's been done in various acoustic arrangements since the first time I ever saw Olivia sing... many years ago.

Chris sang Gaze, and even though he wrote it for Heather's voice originally (I assume), it actually fits his own voice perfectly. He plays acoustic guitar, with Bryan adding electric harmonies.

Hannah sang one of her own songs, accompanying herself on piano, and was probably the revelation of the evening, as she's much too good to stay as a "backing singer". Honestly, great voice, great pianist, great song writer. And then ran off stage without even taking a deserved bow.

Second big surprise of the evening, Alex sat and played guitar and sang a song about superheroes which I assume he also wrote. So yes he can sing, and yes he can play the guitar, and yes he seems to be a pretty decent song writer (ok, he had me at "superheroes").

Angela... came to the front and sang the highlight of the evening. I don't know what it was called and I don't even know for sure if she wrote it, but it was beautiful and had a low whistle solo and... ah, that's all I can say, except the Odin Dragonfly reunion can't come soon enough.

Bryan rounded off this segment with Through the Window, which again sounded pretty close to the original, but I think it must be the first time I've ever heard it live.

This "acoustic" part of the show lasted about 50 minutes, then there was a brief pause before special guest violinist Anna Phoebe came on to do her set. Accompanied by (and I just got the name from a tweet so forgive me if I've got it completely wrong) Aisling Brouwer on piano, she played four tunes: two composed by Aisling and two from Anna's album. The whole set was only 20 minutes, which was much too short to be honest; it felt like it was just getting started when it stopped.

But... it struck me that the effect on the audience was remarkable. The whole hall full of rock fans stood and listened in silence to 20 minutes of... well, look, it was closer to a classical violin recital than rock music (one song, Embrace, takes its melody from Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen; trust me, we've just been listening to classical music). So. It's not something you expect to find at a rock gig (even in the middle of the afternoon).

I loved it. Both musicians were amazing, the compositions were stunning, and ... I just love violins. Most beautiful instrument in the world (sorry, any flautists who might be reading). I would have listened to this all night. Anna Phoebe is now on my list of people to see again.

Another short break, then Mostly Autumn came on again and did their "proper" set, beginning with Dressed in Voices. It was the same set as the gig in York last month, which I've already reviewed so I'm not going to say much about it.

Except, this may be the last time the band plays the Dressed in Voices set. They will have a new album out next year and obviously that will become the focus of the set. But I've seen Dressed in Voices played through five times this year, plus a couple of times last year, and I'm not tired of it yet. I think I like it a bit more every time. The whole, hour-long piece shows every side of the band, the way they can go from a whisper to a crashing rock crescendo over the course of a single song, the incredible level of playing from every member of the band, and the emotional intensity they never fail to bring.

It just leaves me speechless.

After another short break, the band are back on, and again following the format of the Opera House gig, opening the next set with The Night Sky with a beautiful low whistle solo (yay!) and an equally beautiful violin solo. Then it's into the Pink Floyd set, again the same songs as before, but I feel it works even better. The response from the crowd is tremendous, there are sing-alongs and clap-alongs, there's a huge roar of approval for the contributions of guest saxophonist (on Shine On... and Us And Them) Chris Backhouse, and the whole set is stunning.

The band say their goodnights and they leave the stage. That's another hour gone — the band have now played a total of almost three hours — but after just a couple of minutes they are back on for an "encore" that includes The Gap is Too Wide (Anna Phoebe guests again), Questioning Eyes and Heroes Never Die. Yes, three ten-minute songs for the encore. At three-and-a-half hours you might expect them to stop.

No, they just get better.

It's a Mostly Autumn Christmas show. We wouldn't let them leave the building without playing a Christmas song or two. So it's time to pass around the silly hats, some of which were actually too silly for words and one of which was the coolest Christmas hat I've ever seen (I'll leave it to you to guess which one), and time for Bryan to go into a long (lubricated) speech about how beautiful the world is. And for Chris Johnson to sing A Spaceman Came Travelling, and yes we ALL went "la la-la-laaa la-la la la-la laaaaa".

Then there's the most joyful version of I Believe in Father Christmas, and the highlight of the whole gig, of the whole year, possibly of my whole life so far, is Angela at the front in a black Santa hat that said BAH HUMBUG, playing the Troika melody on flute. Gigs just really don't get any more perfect than this. It's nearly 1am, I think I ought to stop writing soon before I start to get too hyperbolic.

But I can't stop before I mention the last song — Fairytale of New York, Bryan hamming it up for all he's worth, the whole stage like a party by this point but still everything is musically perfect, glorious violin/flute duet, just, everything perfect.

And that seems to be the end, the band certainly seems to think it's the end, but Bryan has other ideas and doesn't let them leave the stage, he starts playing I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, and slowly drags the rest of the band with him (sax and violin too) in a chaotic arrangement that seems to be made up on the spot, then he makes every member take a solo, and everybody rises to the occasion, improvising something around the theme, and everything ends with us all singing it, and then so many musicians lining up to take the bow that I'm not actually sure I can count them.

I'm so happy I can't tell you how happy I am. I daren't read this review back, I'm just going to post it and I can't even remember if I said it was the best concert I've ever seen.

I don't think any other band in the world today can do what this band does.