The Bodega, Nottingham
9 February 2013
His 2012 album of Americana and folk-tinged indie was one of our favourites (see the LTW albums of the year list here) but how will it sound played live with a full band (including Nine Black Alps‘ Sam Forrest) rather than his more usual solo acoustic?
I’m going to be upfront about this; I like Chris Helme. As a songwriter his album The Rookery was one of my 2012 musical highlights and he could sing me his shopping list, just as long as he sings.
But this leaves tonight precarious, a much wanted gig but with the potential to disappoint given the high expectations I’ve set. I’m pretty sure most of today’s warm glow is down to the fact not only did it meet those expectations but actually exceeded them in a mellow but wonderfully melodic way.
The thrill of this set is that songs from the record which need a full band to breathe life into them, do get an airing. For me I’ve been waiting since my first spin of The Rookery to hear The Spindle and the Cauldron and tonight that wait is over.
This song is full of supernatural seduction, a vocal full of wanting, a lyric full of resignation to giving in to an unwise but unavoidable liaison.
Live it physically hits. Four men meticulous yet mellow on the stage weave this spell around us. There is a sense of swampy Americana, a sultry voodoo delivered in song. For as long as it lasts this song owns me, I am fallen, the sound a beautiful purple haze engulfing me, leaving behind a smokey soul.
The rest of the set is no less special. A sea mist of sound full of psiren’s song, calling you on, soaking through to your very bones, so darkly enticing before giving way to a rolling rip tide of rhythms.
The full band sound is in front of you on the stage but also around you, inside you. It is pleasantly unrelenting in it’s embrace, warm and strong but losing none of the intricacies of the record.
We get the good stuff – Long Way Round, Daddies Farm, Blind Eye and Summer Girl (with lovely relaxed banter going from stage to audience as Sam Forrest pulls up sharp when Chris muddles the lines).
Then there is a look back, not unusual in Chris’ repertoire but tonight it is to The Yards, and no further. These older songs come closer in style to his more recent solo exploits tonight and are the better for it, fitting perfectly with the set and showing off some precision musicianship on the stage.
But, this is a short set, the press for live music to make way for a club night, but there are songs, it seems, that Chris must sing tonight regardless of limited time. He is left alone on the stage stage as he gives us two covers; Irma Thomas’s Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) and At Last by Etta James.
These classics are full of heartbreak and the swell of soul; Chris Helme more than does them justice tonight. Head bent low over his guitar, the audience quietly (well mostly, we know respect at gigs is hard for some these days) drawn in to the rasp of fingers sliding over strings and the edge of a voice which feels around, as much as sings, these words.
Yes, it’s quite some voice that Helme has. It’s matured to be more suited to the swampy blues and soaring pastoral of his songwriting. The experience of years evident in the tone.
The sibling songs of The Rookery, interspersed with their The Yards ancestors, are all I hoped they would be; more, maybe. These songs sound just as good stripped back and solo or with the swell of company, as they are tonight. That’s a powerful thing but then their maker is a man hitting his songwriting stride, confidence bolstered by a band, modesty and humour making the delivery more appealing.
So there is a warm glow of satisfaction today but also the realisation I’m still wanting, although I’m not entirely clear what for. Certainly a longer set last night would have been welcomed but beyond that is it more chances to hear this full band realisation of familiar songs or is it a new album, new loves? It’s a sweet quandary to ponder, indeed.