Although she’s played the odd acoustic gig and made guest appearances with other artists, Heather Findlay’s short run of gigs promoting the excellent album “The Illusion’s Reckoning” is her first tour fronting a full band for three and a half years. So naturally there was a fair bit of excited anticipation, and the Sunday night show at Bilston Robin 2 at the mid-point of the tour drew a sizeable and appreciative crowd.
The evening began with a short but sweet solo set from harpist and singer Sarah Dean, including her spaghetti western interpretation of Dylan’s “Man in a Long Black Coat”, and ending with the stunning a capella “The Traveller’s Prayer”.
The special guests were Halo Blind, led by Chris Johnson. They’re a band with feet in both the progressive and indie-rock camps; the shimmering soundscapes, fragile melodies and spiralling psychedelic guitars having echoes of Radiohead and Anathema. The entire set came from their excellent second album “Occupying Forces”, a record Chris Johnson describe as being about being pissed off but trying to do something about it. The whole set was impressive, with the evocative “Downpour” a particular highlight.
Heather Findlay’s previous solo tours featured a slimmed-down all-guitar band, but “The Illusion’s Reckoning” needed an expanded band to do its layers and harmonies justice. So the core of rhythm section of Alex Cromarty and Stuart Fletcher and multi-instrumentalist Chris Johnson, all of whom were doing double duty with Halo Blind, were joined by Mostly Autumn’s Angela Gordon on keys, flute and backing vocals. Sarah Dean on vocals, harp and recorder, and progressive rock legend John Mitchell on lead guitar.
The set began with “The Illusion’s Reckoning” played in its entirety, and the new songs came over very powerfully live. “Veil of Ghosts” and “Mountain Spring” built from gentle beginnings into big walls of sound, “In a Dream” and “I’ve Seen Your Star” were dreamy and atmospheric, the Fleetwood Mac-like “Learning to be Light” featured some excellent lead playing from Chris Johnson, and the title track made an epic conclusion to the first half of the show.
It all had a very different feel to previous incarnations of The Heather Findlay band; with the keys and woodwinds there was something of the spirit of Mostly Autumn past about it, although the vibe was quite different from the current incarnation of that band. John Mitchell proved himself the ideal choice as lead guitarist from the way he nailed the solo in the opening number “Island” which Dave Kilminster had played on the record. And Alex Cromarty proved himself a man of many talents by taking the lead vocals on a couple of duets, and even playing harmonium at the front of the stage on “I’ve Seen Your Star”.
The closing part of the set comprised a selection of well-chosen older songs, beginning with a superb “Carpe Diem” with Angela Gordon playing the intro on flute and that spectacular climax with Heather’s wordless vocal intertwining with John Michell’s guitar line. There was a splendidly rocked-up version of Odin Dragonfly’s “Magpie”, and a stunning “Why Do We Stay”, a duet taken from John Mitchell’s Lonely Robot. Perhaps the only moment that didn’t quite work was a rather flat version of “Mona Lisa” which didn’t take off and soar in the way the newer songs in the first half had done. The night ended with a spellbinding “Shrinking Violet”, with a musical box playing “Swan Lake” at the close. No encore, because anything following that would have been an anticlimax.
Heather Findlay has been away for a long time, but this tour represents a triumphant return. The bulk of the set was new material, with just a handful of standards from her days in Mostly Autumn. For those oldies this band kept far closer to the originals rather than the radical reworkings on earlier tours, but they were really a victory lap on a tour that looked forward rather than back.