18 March, 2008

"The Ghostly Apples Tea Drinking Show" - Phantom Dog Beneath The Moon, Les Étoiles, The Anvil, 14/03/08

Have you ever been into Nottingham city centre on a Friday night? It's carnage. Nottingham's a classic example of the new urban frontier town, where the forces of sobriety and temperance clash with the forces of drunkenness and disruliness, nightly.

So you'd have to cast yor net pretty far to find a case of greater contrast, then, than that between Lee Rosy's tea rooms and its surroundings. There aren't many chairs, but it's still hugely comfy inside for this low-key free gig.

The crowd stumble in from the cold in coats and promptly sweat profusely once they start on the first cups of tea. Thirty people can make the place seem quite packed, not least in front of the "stage," which first sees The Anvil, the project of Nottingham's Matthew Fullwood, take to the sweetly-smelling wooden boards.

You couldn't want a much more warming sound to kick off. One could listen to this folky, psychedelic set forever, quite happily. Bringing to mind a more contented Six Organs of Admittance, or a more organic Animal Collective, or Jesu bent through a singer-songwriter's lens, there are plenty of nodding heads by the time Matthew's finished; definitely a hit.

I was chiefly present to see the second act, Les Étoiles. This pseudonym is the mask of David Fitzpatrick, whose album Never To Alight is one of the big must-hears on nascent music label Records on Ribs. The album features some of the most intimate songs I feel I've ever heard, and is touching and mournful in equal measure.

The live experience is not quite as perfect as it is recorded. The delicate instrumental additions are absent, and the delivery of lines is endearingly, but just overly, wavering. But this really is quibbling, as the audience, which previously had been wandering in and out liberally, is held rapt. I'm desperate to hold my breath, to not break the spell, or the magic that delicately holds each piece together. Embraced tenderly by each word, the aftertaste is haunting.

It's one of the hardest acts you could follow. Phantom Dog Beneath The Moon are gamely up for the task, and although we're all tanked up on Almond Cream tea by this late stage of proceedings, and thus quite full and tiring, there's a huge degree of goodwill in the air. After all, vocalist Aaron put the night together and the duo have it in them to finish it all off brilliantly.

Various things aren't right here. The vocals can be a challenging listen, the songs are often introduced with a number of words, the acoustic guitar crescendos can seem obvious. But in this case it hangs together extremely well. Those introductions are evocative and deeply personal. The crescendos are accompanied by rasping additions on the cello, while Aaron can intone lyrics or shift towards an anguished, plaintive voice of surprising power.

The melodies are at once simple and powerful, lent strength by the poweful symbiosis of the two men; their musical understanding seems effortless. The opening songs are haunting, breathy and bitter-sweet. As the set grows, so do the songs, as the last two pieces end loud and make you sit up. It's not unlike a transition from folk to Radiohead, though not quite.

All those things I initially doubt are blended into a quite perfect final set, and as we troop back out into the foul-smelling, unwelcoming cold, we're all quite content.

Like all Records on Ribs releases, Les Étoiles' album "Never To Alight" is available as a free download. Phantom Dog are on the Rusted Rail label and have released an EP, "Through a Forest Only." Releases by The Anvil are available at Woven Wheat Whispers.

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