Band of Holy Joy's new album "How to Kill a Butterfly" is one of the best albums so far this year, and I'd been really looking forward to hearing its live debut at this showcase gig.. The group have really put on the afterburners since previous album "Paramour" came out. That was a good record, with some outstanding songs like "I Dreamt the City was on Fire" and "Somehow I Made it thru the Night", but the new one takes things to another level.There's always a wild card element to any Holy Joy show, and tonight's came in the inclusion of three extra musicians who made a really major contribution to the night's music. Cacper played Juno synth, embellishing the songs with spectral electro wind washes, Peter's mariachi-flavoured trumpet playing took us everywhere from “Forever Changes” to Calexico territory (and worked a treat with Chris' violin), and Kirsten added keyboards, bells and glockenspiel - and as if that wasn't enough, some haunting operatic vocals.(Mudkiss investigators are still trying to track down some surnames here!). I've seen the group work wonders performing on tiny stages, so it was great to see them have room to spread out, and a big enough backdrop to do justice to Inga Tillere's visuals. As always though, no stage can contain Johny Brown for too long, and he couldn't resist taking a seat in the front row for "Sadness...", or a roam thru the audience during "The Repentant"! It all helped the group put across the intense and dramatic feel of both the album's music and lyrical theme - basically, the sheer wonder of life and Nature in all its forms and how to find a way to live harmoniously, and make sense of life's endless spiritual and emotional challenges.
Everything sounded in place during opener "Go Break the Ice", and when they hit the chorus "You, you Divine Fool" on the next song "Oh What a Thing..." it was obvious the band were really on the money tonight. James S Finn & Bill Lewington drove everything forward fast and fluid, while Andy Astle played the midfield general role (no solos, thanks) from his corner of the stage. I’ve run out of words to describe how perfect Chris Brierley’s violin is for the group, but tonight’s blend between violin & trumpet was awesome, especially as there'd hardly been any practice before the gig for the extra players. So many of the songs tonight have really strong choruses - the “Every Star ...“refrain in “Between a Nightingale’s Song” or the "I Say We Strike Out Now” part of “Oh What a Thing...”, to name but two - which make them ideal for live performance.
The visuals are always an integral and essential part of a BOHJ show, and here they were tailored to each song to great effect. One of the main themes of the album is examining our relationship with Nature - what we do to it and vice versa, and how we treat each other - throughout the night the screen teemed with a cascade of flowing water, trees, eddying leaves and the like. The film of pigeons and flying birds that accompanied "Observer’s Book of Birds‘ Eggs" was stunning. The intensity and sheer originality of that track was one of the night's highlights, with Johny Brown really passionate as he examined how love of nature can harm the fragile balance if you get too close. The concerns of “The Repentant” are about as far as you can get from the wintry pastoral of “The Observers‘ Book“. The song's been a work in progress for a while now, and really came together as Johny prowled the stalls, reciting a seemingly endless stream of words evoking decadence, squalor, isolation - and repentance...
"A Clear Night" is an awesome closer to the album, and one of the group's most intense songs yet. Coming as it did near the end of the night, this was a more rousing and exuberant version than the slow-build of the album version, but worked just as well as an intense and magical imagining of what life could be like if we unplugged everything and could return to trees, fields and rivers. In the end the group brought it all home with an encore of "On the Ground Where John Wesley Walked", and even played a request for fearless promoter Helen Martin, her favourite Holy Joy song, "Bluebird" to round the night off. This was a powerful display by a group on a roll, and who have come up with an album that really plays to their many and varied strengths. After the set I wandered out to the smokers' balcony overlooking the darkened river. A swan came gliding along serenely, oblivious to the fact that it should have gone to roost hours earlier. Maybe it'd heard the music. It was that kind of night.
Set-list:Go Break the Ice
www.exoticpylon.com for stills & video from Band of Holy Joy’s set
It was a good night all round. Earlier on Simon Morgan (a.k.a. Mudkiss’ Jean Encoule back in the day) made light of getting the short straw of coming on first to a small audience. His set was based around the excellent "Domestic Abuse" album, and although it’s a pity that we didn't get Marion Fleetwood's lovely violin playing, Simon showed that his material can still stand on its own. A bit of between song banter always helps, and he proved very good at this with some wry comments about the potentially depressing nature of some of his songs. Since hearing his solo resonancefm set a while back, I'd been looking forward to hearing his take on Clash classic "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" again, and I wasn't disappointed - introducing it by saying "I hope you'll agree this is a folk song", his stripped-down version brought fresh light to an already great song, 30 years' time contracting in a moment as Joe Strummer's 1980 song seemed to say so much about where we are now. Recent single "ConDemNation" was another highlight, with Simon rising to the challenge of perforce having to take on MC Killajow's toasting as well as singing his own verses. And of course it was great to finally meet up with one of the Mudkiss originals after many an email and exchanged disc over the last couple of years!
I've seen a fair bit of local lads Bitter Springs over the last year, but tonight's show was a bit different, with the group shrunk down to Simon Rivers (vocals, gtr, banjo), Paul McGrath (accordion) and Phil Martin (vocals, gtr, violin) The idea was to do some of their less often performed songs live and acoustic, and also give a taste of Phil Martin's fine solo album "Before We Go to Paradise" ahead of its January release. All in all, it was a real success, from Simon's opening remark - "Jimmy Saville died today - anyone heard any jokes yet?" - to the concluding accordion-led reggae shuffle thru William Blake's "Tiger Tiger" (believe me, it worked!). Simon Rivers' songs are numerous and overflow with words and ideas (& even the odd pun, "Vlad the Inhaler" anyone?!?). Sometimes the subtlety of the words can get lost a bit in the full Springs setting, so it was great being able to hear the lyrics more clearly. Joe Orton-themed song "Ken" was a real highlight, & Phil's three songs worked really well - again, his contribution can get buried in the full sturm-und-drang of the usual Springs' set-up. Switching between instruments, Simon, Paul & Phil got some really nice musical textures & layers going with their interplay. This is an experiment that needs repeating!
Snowflake in June
Thee Idiots Computing
The Lonely Sea*
Ken, Not Now Mummy's Jogging dear
Rolling English Road*
The Addison Brothers
Vlad the Inhaler (encore)
(* - Phil Martin solo tracks)
Review by Den Browne - photos by Inge Tillere