Mantra Vega Album Launch

Lion Inn, Blakey Ridge

23 January 2016

First I need to point out that this wasn't a regular gig, it was a "launch party" for the new Mantra Vega album, with the emphasis on "party". And I need to explain that I don't actually like parties (yes I'm weird like that), especially in pubs (because I don't drink), and almost from the moment I bought the tickets I was stressing over the travel and the location and the weather and... and everything that could go wrong, and the evening's agenda only included an hour of band time so I was doing all this complicated journey and unwanted socialising for basically a pretty short concert, and...

So anyway, you need to keep all that in mind when you read this review.

And you're probably thinking "You idiot, why did you get a ticket to a PARTY if you don't like parties?" And the answer is that I haven't heard Heather sing for three years, and if you know Heather (and I'm assuming if you're reading this then you do) you'll understand why I would put up with pretty much anything for her.

And then the reality is, I didn't hate any of it, the whole evening was magical, Heather had judged everything perfectly, organised everything perfectly, from the venue to the agenda to the travel to even the room layout and the food and everything. And rather than sitting in a corner going "bah humbug" and waiting for the music to start, I spent several happy hours chatting with people I've been seeing at gigs for years, new people I just met, and assorted band members. The Lion Inn is a magical location, an ancient coaching inn on the moors miles from anywhere, last week's snow still piled around it (we were there on just the right weekend — just one more bit of Heather magic), there was ridiculous amounts of great food (and the chef went out of his way to cater for weird dietary requirements, for which we are most grateful) and best of all they served cups of tea at the bar (I'm so rock'n'roll).

But all that is just setting the scene. Time to review the actual gig.

[Pause for breath. Try to write shorter sentences.]

The live set consisted only of songs from the new album, as you might expect given that this was the whole point of the evening. The album was played — for the first time ever in public — over the PA while we were eating dinner, but it was impossible to take it in properly while we were talking and eating. All I can say is that it covered a range of styles and moods, from soft acoustic to rocking numbers, and seemed to have too much depth and complexity to be adequately recreated in what was billed as a small acoustic gig by part of the Heather Findlay Band.

Well, I can't in all honesty say how well they recreated the album, but taken on its own merits what they did play was a set of arrangements with an astonishing breadth and depth of sound. And what was billed as a small-scale acoustic gig actually ended up being ten musicians playing a vast array of instruments between them in one of the most ambitiously complex concerts I've ever seen.

To give you an idea of the effect, consider the band.

Heather on lead vocals, of course, and also playing guitar, percussion and recorder. Angela Gordon on keyboards, flute, low whistle, recorder, harmonium (harmonium! When do you ever hear a harmonium? I can count the number of harmonium players I have seen on the fingers of one hand) and backing vocals. Chris Johnson on guitar (acoustic and electric), keyboards, and backing vocals. Alex Cromarty on guitar, drums, and backing vocals. Stu Fletcher on electric bass.

Then the guest musicians who played on various songs as needed. Troy Donockley on vocals, electric guitar, low whistle, and a drainpipe-sized whistle that I don't even have a name for... contrabass whistle or something? Bryan Josh on electric guitar. And three backing singers: Sarah Dean (also on recorder), Olivia Sparnenn-Josh, and... I'm really sorry but the name of the third singer has completely gone out of my head. (In my defence, I'm terrible with names and she was the only person on stage I haven't seen multiple times in the past.)

Ah, ok, I hope you're getting an idea of what the sound was like and why I used words like "depth" and "breadth". This was a sound easily the equal of Mostly Autumn at their most intricate. And everything sounded perfectly balanced (I would have turned up the vocal personally, but that's just me) and crystal clear too, quite impressive for an oddly-shaped room that's clearly not a purpose-built acoustic. For visuals, you'll have to imagine this group set up in a corner of a rustic, low-ceilinged stone pub, no stage as such, lit by hundreds of twinkling fairy lights, while the audience sat in candle light and listened with complete attention.

Honestly, it's one of those you-had-to-be-there atmospheres.

In the end they played for an hour and twenty minutes. Some time was taken up by the band clambering over each other to change instruments in the tiny space, and more time was taken up by Heather's between-song ramblings (one of the most natural stage presences I know, she doesn't announce songs as much as chat like you're all her old friends), but there was still plenty of music. Well, almost the whole of the album apparently.

Heather apologies that they hadn't rehearsed an encore, so they picked something they all knew already but had never actually played together. Olivia and Bryan were summoned to the stage and they played

Ok, most of the Heather Findlay Band, half of Mostly Autumn and all of Odin Dragonfly, and Angela's just moved to the front with a flute. What do you want to hear?

I wanted to hear Caught in a Fold, and it was an obviously unrehearsed, slightly shambolic version, but that didn't matter at all because that was exactly the song I wanted at the moment, and to the people who thought I wasn't serious afterwards when I told them it was the best concert I've ever seen I can just point to moments like that say, look. I'm always serious. How it makes me feel now is what matters.