Smoke Fairies Live: St Mary’s Church, Guildford – live review

Smoke Fairies.
St Mary’s Church, Guildford.
September 17th 2012.

English folk singing, songwriting duo Smoke Fairies kicked of a tour taking in the whole Europe last night in the wonderful & ever popular setting of an actual factual church. Ian Johnson was there for us & reports back below.

The striking, old St Mary’s Church in Quarry Street, Guildford is probably the perfect setting for a gig by the enchanting and quintessentially English Smoke Fairies. There has been a church on this site since Saxon settlers in the Guildford area became Christians during the 7th century AD. The guidebook reveals that the stone tower was first built between 950 and 1100. Traces of early 13th century wall-paintings are still visible in the Chapel, probably created around 1200, and Smoke Fairies, surrounded by burning candles and an enthusiastic sold out crowd, detonate a blistering, impassioned set right in the middle of the building.

The timeless Smoke Fairies albums, the magnificently titled Through Low Light And Trees (2010) and this year’s exceptional Blood Speaks, seem to suggest that history and personal memory are always ever-present in our lives, regardless of society’s unrelenting drive towards ”Ëœmodernity’ and our own individual futures. In one sense, Smoke Fairies (Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davis were raised in mid 90s Chichester, Sussex, but, so the story goes, managed to escape to discover America and immerse themselves in the country’s music) can be seen to be drawing upon the spirit of the late 60s / early 70s movement in British popular culture that celebrated the rituals and rhythms of rural existence, and old, bizarre English traditions in general. During this period, the British folk-rock movement was at its height, featuring bands such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Lindisfarne and solo artists such as Nick Drake and Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny. Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davis obviously have a great affinity with the same musical influences shared by the aforementioned artists, delving into a wide spectrum of warm, bluesy Americana and seductive 70s rock.

Yet Smoke Fairies are definitely not traditional, fingers in the ear folk musicians, nor are they mere ”Ëœretro’ revivalists. As the thrilled witnesses to this gig will testify, they are adeptly channelling folk, rock, pop and all manner of Americana towards their very own highly distinctive musical expression. No wonder Smoke Fairies have recorded for Jack White‘s label and were featured guest artists on Richard Hawley‘s brilliant sea shanty inspired 2010 EP, False Light From The Land.

The Smoke Fairies also pack a mean rock action punch to the solar plexus when required and possess a keen sense of humour to boot. Backed by drums, bass and Neil Walsh’s viola, Katherine and Jessica’s beautiful interlocking vocal harmonies, guitars and organ generate enough volume during the climax of the Blood Speaks track ”ËœFeel It Coming Near’ to bring some small flecks of plaster down from the ancient rafters of St Mary’s. Katherine remarks upon the appropriateness, or otherwise, of performing the haunting ”ËœDevil In My Mind’ (from Through Low Light And Trees) in a church.

Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davis’ classic compositions, tales of mournful longing, soul mining and regret, follow in quick succession ”“ the road fever weariness of ”ËœHotel Room’, the direct emotional charge of the Blood Speaks title track (which features Jessica on lead vocal, hitting a drum, propelling the number into the night), the hypnotic new single ”ËœLet Me Know’, ”ËœThe Three Of Us’ (according to Jessica, a true story of an ill fated Greyhound Bus tour, during which she argued with Katherine and persuaded the driver to momentarily depart without her: “I wanted to see her run.”), and the ominous bad juju blues rock of ”ËœStrange Moon Rising’ ( a number the late, great Gun Club singer Jeffery Lee Pierce would have loved). After the simmering tale of heartbreak delineated within ”ËœAwake’ and ”ËœErie Lackawanna’, a ghostly song concerning old age and rampant change behind a railway line, the performance concludes with another encore: a remarkable cover of The Cult’s ”ËœShe Sells Sanctuary’ (featured on their superb limited edition This Is A Reflection covers EP), which proves that Smoke Fairies are alchemists, turning base 1980s metal pop into pure gold. Unfortunately, there was no time left for their version of Killing Joke’s ”ËœRequiem’ from the same EP.

Smoke Fairies’ music is a highly potent brew. It possesses an eerie, mesmeric quality, which lingers long in the mind after the gig has ended. The Smoke Fairies are unquestionably the glamorous sirens luring the listener into enthralling, unfamiliar waters. Make sure you submit yourself to their magic spell when they play your town on this 19 date UK tour.

Blood Speaks by Smoke Fairies is out now. We reviewed the album here.

Smoke Fairies tour continues over the next two months & takes in these dates:

18 Cardiff Buffalo Bar
19 Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms
20 Brighton The Haunt
22 Norwich Arts Centre
23 Oxford Academy
24 Bristol The Fleece
26 Birmingham Hare & Hounds
27 Leeds Brudenell Social Club
28 Hebden Bridge Trades Club
30 Newcastle Cluny

1 Edinburgh Pleasance Theatre
2 Glasgow Oran Mor
3 York Duchess
5 Manchester Deaf Institute
6 Lincoln Engine Shed
7 Nottingham Rescue Rooms
8 Cambridge Portland Arms

Smoke Fairies have a website which you can find here and they’re on Facebook too.

All words by Ian Johnston. You can read more from Ian on LTW here.

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