London – The early nineteenth century church of St John on Bethnal Green in East London presents the kind of austere elegance that offers a fitting space for music of a more cerebral nature. Blessed with fine acoustics, it is not alone among London churches used as midweek music venues though it has a certain glacial atmosphere in contrast to the fire and brimstone that could once have radiated from the building’s imposing pulpit in its early years. Tonight, a capacity crowd soon warmed to two bright new stars on the Bella Union skyline. The UK indie label has an enviable reputation for scouting the best talent that exists outside the mainstream and in Holly Macve and Will Stratton has found two real treasures.
Opening with “Light Blue” from his forthcoming album, Rosewood Almanac, the slightly built, bearded Will Stratton immediately impressed; his plaintive, lucid voice working in perfect counterpoint to a relaxed finger-picking guitar style heightened by nicely punctuated flourishes. Mixing cuts from Rosewood with reflective songs from his earlier work and dropping in a brand new one, “Finally Free”, in a ten-song set, Stratton held court to a receptive audience. The fragile elements within his repertoire were neatly offset by his resonant guitar-playing, mixed up with frequent changes in tuning.
There was a certain effortlessness about his delivery, which belied his obvious skills with both instrument and voice, and a gentle personality that masked an occasional word fluff or small tuning adjustments made mid song. Two from the new record especially stood out: “Manzanita”, a song about Stratton’s brother but more broadly about ageing and “Some Ride”, probably his most immediate melody, driven by a beautifully fluid verse/chorus structure. “Manzanita” revealed his aptitude as a wordsmith, listing what he loves about the way we grow old. The graceful “Some Ride” worked wonderfully as a metaphor for life: “All I need is a reason to ride, and I’ll ride all right.”
While most of Stratton’s songs might be rooted in personal memories, his use of imagery takes them beyond this into more universal territory while there is a political underbelly to others, notably “Who Will”, a song written in the Bush era and rewritten to be less sac religious, as the singer put it. The set closed with “If You Wait Long Enough” with a flurry of finger picking heralding the opening lines and gluing the verses together. The singer exited without a word; nothing rude, but just a sense that all had been said and sung.
Selected by the New York Times as one of 12 Notable Acts at last month’s SXSW Festival, the Irish born and British raised singer-songwriter Holly Macve should not be one to be overawed despite her tender years. That said she seemed humbled by the turn-out for the latest leg of her short UK tour. Highlighting her recent debut album, Golden Eagle, she began confidently with solo guitar and vocal on “White Bridge”, a song about homecoming, change and development. Resplendent in a long blue shimmering dress with her English Rose complexion framed with soft tumbles of blonde hair, there was a cowboy nod in the shape of a wide-brimmed black hat. Her vocal style might seem something of a throwback to the female country stars of yesteryear but her music goes well beyond the more familiar conventions of country music. The melismatic swoops and slurs add real individuality to her as a singer.
Introducing her fine slide guitar player (Tommy) for the second song, “The Corner of My Mind”, before completing the band line-up with bass and drums for the lead single, the noir-laden “Heartbreak Blues”, the set picked up pace holistically with Macve’s singular vocal always holding sway. “Heartbreak Blues” in particular has such a classic feel that it’s hard not to imagine comparisons with the likes of the great Patsy Cline. There is a surety to Macve’s vocal delivery that belies her years and a tone to set hearts racing. The band harmonies were spot on too.
On “Shell” she seemed to embrace a tipsy Stevie Nicks; the slide guitar effectively adding to a feeling of drowsiness. Holly Macve was back solo for the next song, offering the crowd the choice of a new song or “Fear” (another cut from Golden Eagle). Rare though it was for a crowd to vote for fear – I don’t suppose any of this lot voted Brexit – the song went on to show Macve’s command of the high register with more than a hint of a Joni Mitchell or Laura Marling about it. At times, she uses her voice as an instrument as much as for delivering words.
Pausing from her own repertoire to accompany herself on the piano to cover Melanie’s “We Don’t Know Where We’re Going” and staying at the instrument for the band supported “Timbuktu”, more versatility abounded. The set came to a close with the new album’s elegiac title track, poignantly dedicated to her late grandfather who, the singer among other things confided, “was a musician and taught me a lot.” With no one willing to allow her to leave it at that, she returned for a single encore, once more solo acoustic. Like “White Bridge” and “Timbuktu” before it, “Sycamore Tree” focus on lost innocence, using imagery of a flower blooming and then wilting to depict the experience: “Oh I was always afraid, afraid to face the truth / That every day I moved on further and further from my youth / But that’s just the way it is, like a bud turning into a rose / We’ll watch it bloom and wilt, it’s just the way it goes”.
Right now, though, one can only see Holly Macve in bloom.
This video is from a previous London appearance.
Photography of Holly Macve by Abbey Raymonde
Holly Macve’s debut album, Golden Eagle, is out now and available to buy on iTunes. Will Stratton’s new album, Rosewood Almanac, will be released on 12 May.
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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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