London – On its latest album, Moon Saloon, the Providence, Rhode Island trio Arc Iris, comprised of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jocie Adams, Zachary Tenorio-Miller (keyboards) and Ray Belli (percussion), demonstrated a shift away from Americana territory towards a more experimental terrain. Similarly, in a live set mixing songs from the recent album with some new material, there was only space for one cut from the band’s 2014 eponymous debut: “Money Gnomes.” The Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen may sound more to do with food and drink than music, but the gig room is one to chalk up for any up and coming band, with the likes of Florence & The Machine, Foals, and Mumford & Sons having played it en route to stadia shows; so it was an appropriate location for the sonically mobile Arc Iris.
The North London venue was quieter than usual, but the crowd made up in commitment what they maybe lacked in numbers. Always good for some theatrics, all three band members arrived on a strobe-lit stage clad in gold cloaks that were more Game of Thrones than Spinal Tap, while Tenorio-Miller went on to demonstrate keyboard wizardry that would have shamed Rick Wakeman. Dry ice was off the bill, though. The first two songs, a newbie called “Dylan” and “Kingdom Come” from Moon Saloon, saw the often instrument-hopping Jocie Adams sticking to vocals before strapping on an electric guitar for much of the remaining set. Both songs highlighted the quieter aspect of Adams’ expansive voice that ranges from music box softness to soulful power. “Kingdom Come” saw a now de-cloaked Adams acting out the story, while her band mates shone either side of her.
Percussion is especially integral to the direction Arc Iris’ sound has taken. Ray Belli provided a rhythmic spine and great textural embellishment throughout the night, that louder than on record but just as inventive. New songs “Turn It Up” and “Icon” showcased Adams’ guitar playing, with a progressive riff and heavy phrase respectfully on both songs, each slotting comfortably into the set, like old friends rather than new acquaintances. It was at times not that easy to catch hold of Adams’ lyrics on the newer material; despite a decent overall sound mix, there could have been more on the vocal mikes.
Jocie Adams marked Joni Mitchell’s 73rd birthday today with two of her songs, “The Last Time I Saw Richard” and “Blue,” with each being given a thorough Arc Iris-style makeover; the former capped with a dramatic synth coda and the latter featuring sonorous keys and powerhouse drums. Adams has acknowledged the influence of music from the 60s and 70s on her writing and the special inspiration she gets from Joni Mitchell. The 70s were also called to mind by Belli’s prodigious drum solo that began “Lay Down.” The song evoked a rock opera and the manic freeform keyboard passages could almost have been outtakes from Tommy.
Some of Jocie Adams’ nicely directed chat, between songs, was lost in translation due to the microphones, and as the singer admitted “I speak really fast,” she scored a direct hit calling out to the audience for names and then changing the subject of the bawdy song “Johnny” to Sammy, while serenading that particular guy in the crowd. “Money Gnomes” from the debut album showed off exceptional musicianship in tandem with stagecraft. Beginning as a folk song before jetting off on successive flights of fancy and shifting time signatures, it was glued together by Adams’ astonishing voice and her ability to mix mischief with heartbreak at will.
The song neatly led into one of the standouts on Moon Saloon, “Kaleidoscope,” via a kind of bird dance performed on a podium by a newly gold-cloaked Adams. Shorn of some of its studio layers, the episodic opus was tackled resolutely by the trio and quite brilliantly realised with syncopated drums, swirling keyboards and Adams’ dreamlike vocals. She was dynamic on the Latin-infused “Saturation Brain,” and finally back on the elevated platform (sans cloak) for the beautifully sparse “Moon Saloon” – the feeling of isolation heightened by wind rushing through the PA and punctuated by rich bass keyboard notes.
“Please don’t make me run away,” Adams entreated and the crowd was having none of it. A single encore came closest to a conventional pop song on a night that the avant-garde ruled. The mantra of “We found hope” led to a revivalist ending with crowd lovingly ah-ah-ing along, conducted by Jocie Adams to a crescendo, before dying away under her baton. There are gigs, there are shows, and there are performances. This was a performance, and it was mostly extraordinary.
Arc Iris returns to the US with a tour running from 13th November through to 18th December. See the band’s Facebook page for venues. Moon Saloon is out now and available to buy on iTunes.
Tony’s great passion in life is music and nothing gives him more pleasure than unearthing good, original new music and championing independent musicians. His association with Best New Bands brings great opportunities for this. He also writes for Consequence of Sound and is a judge for Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition.
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