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Well, a new experience for me in reviewing shows, not only for Mudkiss but in general. Not so much that the venue was a church; having seen Elbow in Manchester Cathedral and religiously(!) attending St Brides in Liverpool every Christmas season for the past 4 years for solo performances by Steve Hogarth of Marillion, there’s something about the atmosphere and the acoustics which make church gigs work. No, the first was the fact that St Philips, apart from being a terrifically welcoming venue was the first warm church I’ve been to!

Exuberance and warmth were the central themes of the evening, from Rachel Hillary’s hastily arranged short opening set, through the diversity of Chris T-T’s support to the final moments of a high-spirited encore from the main act. Confessing to feeling “a bit naughty drinking in church when it’s not the blood of Christ”, Rachel’s set showcased her gentle guitar playing and ever so slightly Irish tinged voice – not surprising when she dedicated her final song to her Belfast born dad, performing ‘Belfast Mill’, an evocative old Irish folk song which he’d taught her.

With some classic Dylan played over the PA and an introduction from Emily Barker, Chris T-T’s soft opening song at the keyboard belied his reputation as a bit of a maverick. Again, maybe influenced by the setting, his set was made up of his less challenging and outspoken material - by his own admittance he does tend to be a bit sweary but no need for the parental advisory sticker on tonight’s performance. He included a couple of songs from his work based on the poems of AA Milne plus the title track from his new album ‘The Bear’ (the radio friendly version) and a stunning version of ‘Gulls’ from the same album, accompanied by Emily Barker herself. As a solo artist (as well as the fingers he has in lots of other pies with his work as a blogger in various capacities for Leeds Met and the Brighton Pavillion) Chris is well worth checking out when he goes out on his solo tour in December (Manchester Kraak for locals) and then out with his band in the new year.

After a great start to the evening, with the Mudkiss guide to ‘always see the support band’ paying dividends, The Red Clay Halo fronted by the unpretentiously unassuming Emily Barker kicked off the second part of the tour resplendent with brand new hairdo’s and a set based round her much admired recent album ‘Dear River’, the rolling trundling title track delivered as set opener. With the band of  Anna Jenkins (violin, viola), Jo Silverston (cello, electric bass) and Gill Sandell (accordion, flute, keyboards) who also provided delicious harmonies all night, accompanied by drummer and token male Nat Butler, it was an evening full of marvellous music in an atmospheric and impressive setting.  With both songs from the new double A-sided single ‘Tuesday’ and ‘Ghost Narrative’ (with Emily donning the harmonica brace) getting an airing, it was the performance of ‘Letters’ – inspired by the story of the passing of messages during the Great War – which began delicately but soon swelled into an epic performance which belied the five musicians onstage. It was the performance which earned the ‘worth the price of admission by itself’ accolade.

Taking her turn in the spotlight, Emily’s gracefully picked and sung ‘Home’, written around a camp fire contrasted with her joyous acappella  ode to coffee in ‘Java Jive’ – who else do you know who has coffee & downloads on the merch desk? Encore time saw a country blues take on Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ getting the Red Clay treatment along with  a light  hearted diversion by using  the online invitation for a fan to live the dream and join the band onstage -  a lucky (and brave) gent being enrolled to take on the male vocal part on ‘Fields Of June’ and a jolly decent fist he made of it too – again, how many bands can you imagine inviting auditions from fans to join them?

When she sings of “I hope I know which way to go” in set closer ‘The Blackwood’, you get the impression that Emily Barker is most certainly on the right path.

Review & photos by Mike Ainscoe