It’s a rare venue, Wilton’s Music Hall: a combination of grand music hall from the 19th century and a pub from the 1700s. Both are still in effect: the hall playing host to this evening’s musical marvels and the pub providing rich refreshment in the form of the wonderfully-named Curious Brew, and Kernel’s delicious Pale Ale.
There’s a pungent smell of damp plaster and the air is replete with dust, raised by the feet tramping these ancient boards. There’s a warm glow generated by pearl bulbs and fairy lights and a sweet sense of anticipation in the air even though this is the second of The Staves’ album launch nights, and we’ve all no doubt been streaming this through NME for the last week.
Before the sisters and their band come out for the main deal, one of their number provides the support. James Canty was a delight: bewildering skills on guitar and banjo, digits as magical on strings as the fingersmith of Roald Dahl’s tales were in and out of pockets.
Canty is the perfect opening act: confidence, presence, banter and beguiling tunes including some unusual banjo playing (at least for me it was unusual – tap/slap banjo maybe ?) and some impressively deft flitting over the strings in standout number ‘The Birds (Part Two)’.
After James has finished his brief and alluring set, Backseat Mafia’s representatives knock back a couple more drinks (love that Kraken rum) and defend their near-the-front territory from the kind of push-in punters you normally meet on the tube. And then they’re here.
It’s an odd thing to be at a gig where you know what’s going to be played, and in what order. The only mystery is the encore, but even that we know is going to contain limited surprises what with the 10:30 curfew, the knowledge that Justin Vernon is definitely in town and venue, and the news that last night’s extras featured a major band favourite in Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’. Admittedly there is still room for anticipation in wondering whether or not it is possible to reproduce those incredible harmonies live.
And boy they do that.
One of the key factors is that many of the songs are stripped of some of the embellishments that they wear on record, or at least that they are lost in the mix below the incredible voices – solo and together – that are at the centre of tonight’s charms. It’s not that there’s anything that wrong with many of the studio additions – you can’t knock artists for experimenting, for playing around with different instruments and sounds and letting their producer shape their sound. But the fact is that these songs sound all the better for being a purer, more stripped-down version of themselves.
‘Let Me Down’ is a fine example, given enormous amplification and potency without the vocal treatments of its second half; the majesty of the conjoined voices is allowed to soar unfettered and is the perfect crescendo for the opening third, following on beautifully from an enhanced ‘Steady’ and a perfect reading of ‘No Me, No You, No More’.
Single ‘Black and White’ seems tauter and more focused – surprising in its brevity – and saved from the jarring acid-jazzy breakdown of the LP version. ‘Damn It All’ is just as we wanted it – apparently inspired by Twin Peaks – its first half gently delivered before unfolding into the powerful, consuming tumult of voices and horns that concludes its second movement: “Throw it all to the wind, well damn it all, I don’t want it all.”
From there, ‘The Shining’ is just as much of a bum note as it is on record, dropping us into a tempo and tone at odds with the amazements around it. ‘Don’t You Call Me Anymore’ does its best to pull us out but it’s the handclap-rich joy of ‘Horizons’ that heralds the recovery, completed by album anthem and Beatles-channelling ‘Teeth White’. It’s a terrific number that simply has to be the next single.
From that moment on, it’s a mixture of The Staves and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, album producer. He plays and sings with the band on ‘Make It Holy’, an interesting revision to the mix of vocals, before Jessica delivers something of a solo effort on piano and lead vocals for ‘Sadness Don’t Own Me’. It’s a wonderful song, reminiscent of Ryan Adams’ ‘Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st)’, album closer for that classic, ‘Heartbreaker’. It’s every bit as good, as melancholy, as reverberating. When you are listening to the harmonies of the line “eclipsing the moon” imagine that being provided live, on stage, note-perfect, under lights. Wow.
The encore gives us The Boss, as well as fantastic renditions of ‘Eagle Song’ and ‘Facing West’ from debut album ‘Dead & Born & Grown’. But it’s over too soon. We want more. Isn’t that the way with such wonderful nights ?