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Mostly Autumn – York Grand Opera House

Bryan Josh and Anna Phoebe

Mostly Autumn’s annual York shows had traditionally taken place at the beginning of December, and had come to represent the start of the run up to Christmas, though they skipped last year because the venue was fully booked. This year they’ve done things differently; a show in York in mid-November and a separate Christmas showcase in Leamington Spa in December. For both shows they’ve advertised a couple of special guest musicians in the shape of Anne Phoebe on violin and Chris Backhouse on saxophone.

Olivia SparnannThe first set, like the majority of shows this year, was the 2014 album “Dressed in Voices” played in full as a continuous piece. It’s their strongest album for many years, full of soaring guitar and swirling organ, and the band delivered an intense performance.

It diverged from previous shows during the folk-flavoured “Skin on Skin”, when Anna Phoebe joined the band on stage, first following Alex Cromarty’s drum solo with some spectacular violin pyrotechnics, then adding some more delicate textures to “The House on the Hill”.

Right through to the acoustic coda “Box of Tears”, this set was one of the most powerful live versions of “Dressed in Voices” to date. Of course nobody knew at the time the band were played a concept album with a narrative told the the point view of the victim of a senseless massacre at the same time as the tragic events were playing out in Paris.

The second half was billed as the “Mostly Floyd” set, reprising a selection of Pink Floyd covers the band had performed a decade or so ago. The announcement bought the band criticism from some quarters; not everyone thought the idea of a band with a substantial body of work of their own playing what amounted to a tribute set; for a few it bought back bad memories of the band’s misplaced promotion during the ill-fated Classic Rock Productions era.

But they did start with one of their own numbers, an atmospheric and evocative version of “The Night Sky”, a song last performed at the 2007 “Heart Full of Sky” launch gig at The Astoria, when Peter Knight played the dramatic violin solo that forms the centrepiece of the song. This time it was Anna Phoebe on violin, and it was a joy to hear such a rarely played song live, especially since it’s one of the best songs from the band’s early years.

For the Pink Floyd songs another guest joined the band, backing singer Hannah Hird, who had toured with the band during much of 2013. They began with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Time”, but the set  really caught fire with “The Great Gig in the Sky” featuring Olivia Sparnenn on that famous vocal workout, and a very hard-rocking “Sheep” with Chris Johnson singing lead.  They played the obvious standards “Wish You Were Here”, which featured vocals from drummer Alex Cromarty, and Comfortably Numb with Chris Johnson and Olivia Sparnenn combining as the creepy doctor.

But the strongest highlights were “Us and Them” enhanced with Chris Backhouse’s sax, and a superb “On the Turning Away” with Bryan Josh completely nailing the solo. By the end, the tight and passionate performance and the rich layered sound by what for some songs was a nine-piece band evaporated any scepticism about the set.

The encored with another iconic early song, “The Gap Is Too Wide”, again featuring Anne Phoebe’s violin. It had been a regular encore in the later years of Breathing Space, but Mostly Autumn themselves hadn’t played themselves for many, many years, and it was great to hear it live once more. Olivia has always nailed the emotive vocal, and the arrangement was quite different from with Olivia, Angela and Hannah singing in harmony for the choral version. After that, the traditional set closers of “Evergreen” and “Heroes Never Die” close what had been one of Mostly Autumn’s most powerful shows this year.

Many thanks to Howard Rankin for thie use of his photos to accompany this review.

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Mostly Autumn – York Grand Opera House, 2008

And so we come to the final chapter of November Gig Madness. And this is really the only possible ending.

The first time I travelled to York for the annual Grand Opera House was in 2007, when it was moved to the beginning of the month so that flautist/keyboardist Angie Gordon, who was expecting a baby in December, could make one final appearance with the band before going on maternity leave. This year it returned to the more traditional date of the last weekend in November. And I’d learned my lesson leaving it too late to order a ticket; instead of the restricted view seat I ended up in last year I purchased a ticket the day they went on sale, and scored the second row, just off-centre on Bryan’s side of the stage.

I’m usually one of those curmudgeons that complains that Christmas starts earlier and earlier, but walking through the medieval streets on the way to the gig with all the decorations out in near sub-zero temperatures meant it was starting to feel like Christmas. The famous Shambles rather beats the 60s grot of Crewe shopping centre as the scenic route to a gig.

Mostly Autumn gigs are known for their great atmosphere; this one, with many friends and family of the band takes that to another level. You could taste the anticipation in the hall. The last Mostly Autumn gig was the Cambridge Rock Festival four months ago, Heather Findlay’s last appearance before going on maternity leave. After four months in which many people wondered if she’d want to take a more extended break from the band, tonight’s was to be her first live appearance with the band on returning.

The band hit the ground running with the now-traditional opener of “Fading Colours”, no trace of the rustiness from having off the road for four months. The setlist started out much as the spring tour with ‘Caught in a Fold‘, ‘Flowers for Guns‘ and ‘Unoriginal Sin‘, although they varied things later on. Nice to hear another couple of songs from “Passengers“, ‘First Thought‘, which I’d never heard live before, and the old favourite ‘Answer the Question‘, which hasn’t been played for something like two years. And they debuted two more songs from this years “Glass Shadows“, ‘A Different Sky‘ and ‘Until the Story Ends‘, the latter featuring a guest appearance from Troy Donockley on Uilleann pipes.

This was really Heather’s show, as much as Cardiff eighteen months ago, although this one was an altogether more happy occasion. She looked wonderful, and sang like a goddess. The sparse piano ballad ‘Above the Blue‘ was possibly the best version I’ve heard so far, and the epic ‘Carpe Diem‘, also augmented by Troy Donockley’s Uilleann pipes, was utterly spellbinding.

If the streets of York hadn’t started the Christmas season, the encores certainly did, with all the traditional Christmas covers, kicking of with their spine-tingling five-part harmony version of the traditional Carol ‘Silent Night’ with guest appearances from former members Angela Gordon and Chris Johnson.

Altogether a magical evening, and reminds me of just why Mostly Autumn remain my favourite band. And it was nice to meet half the band at the Old White Swan after the gig. I just hope I didn’t give one band member my lurgey; she insisted on giving me a hug before I had the chance to tell her I have a cold.

I’ll probably catch the band at least once more on the December leg of the tour.

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