Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening / The Rheingans Sisters

King's Place, London

17 March 2019

The Rheingans Sisters produced the best album of the year last year, despite stiff competition from many of my favourite bands, and tonight's 40-minute set is drawn entirely from it, and, yes, it was every bit as good as I had hoped and expected.

It's a mix of songs and tunes, mostly fiddle-led but they both switch to various other instruments as required (including a traditional French instrument I've never even seen before and don't know the name of (Anna said it but I've forgotten already)). The result gives them a big variety of sounds — two fiddles and two voices in close harmony is already pretty near perfect, the extra versatility of the other instruments just makes their sound the best thing ever. A lot of the music is based on old dance forms, and it all sounds really old, even when they are new compositions by the sisters.

The instrumentals are complex and always beautiful, but the most powerful parts of the set are their songs, which carry such emotional depth that ... well, I'm sure they're going to sing Edge of the Field, and I'm not sure if I'm hoping for it or dreading it. It's a song about saying goodbye to someone. I think Rowan wrote it (she sings it tonight), and if she never writes anything else in her life she's already up there with the most profoundly emotional songwriters I've ever encountered. And tonight it's devastating, and by the end of the set I'm a complete wreck. I'm struggling with the memory now, writing this review. It joins a small number of songs that, well, I'm just glad songs like this exist, but it's really hard to listen to.

This is already the best gig of the weekend.

So, I'm not at all sure that Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening can compete with that. But then I actually have no idea what they are going to be like anyway. Even though I've heard Kathryn Tickell many times live and on CDs, it seems that every new project she undertakes these days is completely different from anything she's done before, always pushing the boundaries of what you're "supposed" to do in folk music.

So this band is a bit different from ... anything else I know.

My first clue is when the merch desk has t-shirts — folk bands don't do that (though I have no idea why not; I'd buy one every time). [Note: Insert t-shirt selfie here.] The next clue is when there's an actual drum kit at the back of the stage, and a smoke machine pumping away to enhance the rock-band lighting.

The band walk on one by one, so the concert opens with a bodhran solo, which becomes a duet with the drum kit, joined by fiddle, guitar, accordion, and finally Northumbrian pipes, playing a blinding fast instrumental and, look, it's a rock concert. Swear to God, I'm at a rock concert with a rock band playing traditional English pipe tunes. I am completely boggled.

I'm not even going to say "folk rock", because that's too limiting a pigeonhole. This band could stand in the same pigeonholes as many modern prog bands I listen to, there are that many unconventional facets to what they're doing.

The band: Kathryn Tickell switches between pipes and fiddle. Kate Young on fiddle. Amy Thatcher on accordion, clogs, and, surprisingly, electronic keyboard (I'm sure there are also triggered samples, but I'm not sure if she's the one controlling them). Kieran Szifris on what I thought must be an 8-string guitar (eh?), but the more I thought about it the more I realised it must be some variety of mandola or octave mandolin or something like that (not as big as the mandocello I've seen him playing before). Cormac Byrne on bodhran and additional percussion, and in a band of incredible instrumentalists he stands out as being ... more than incredible. And I'm sorry but I didn't recognise the drummer and I didn't catch his name ... Joe? ... something. Drums. And he's really the lynchpin that makes this band feel like a rock band. Highlight of the gig is his duet with Cormac on percussion.

And despite Kathryn Tickell's name being in the headline, this feels like a band of equals, a real band not just a Kathryn Tickell showcase with some random guys backing her.

The set is a mix of songs and tunes, all presumably drawn from their only (unreleased, but I've just bought one) album. Lead vocal on the songs is the extraordinary and unmistakable voice of Kate Young — but Kathryn Tickell and Amy Thatcher also sing (this is not unprecedented, but unusual enough to be noteworthy).

Highlights of the show ... the beautiful, unaccompanied three-part song (I've already forgotten its name, dammit), the clogs/spoons duet (yes, I said clogs and spoons, how awesome is that?), the 2000-year-old Roman song to Nemesis, the traditional song in Pitmatic dialect (which has to be translated for the London audience) ... oh, God, it's just all highlights. This band is extraordinary.

The whole show is beautiful, beautiful music, beautifully staged, beautifully presented, funny, and happy, and dynamic, and ... and honestly exactly what I needed.

I really wasn't expecting this.

I might have to see if they have tickets left for The Sage next week.

Best concert I've ever seen. Honestly.