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.
The 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.