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abigail washburn. The eccentronic review. ESBEN AND THE WITCH.

by Now Then Sheffield

26th JANUARY.
GREYSTONES PUB.
REVIEWER - PETE MARTIN.

The Backroom at the Greystones is a great, newish addition to the Sheffield music scene. It provides an upmarket setting for gigs requiring a certain intimacy - tonight being a perfect example.

Local stalwart Dave Woodcock filled the support slot along with his band the Dead Comedians. After a delayed start, he played a selection of songs mostly drawn from his most recent album Omaha High Low, which has garnered praise from a number of publications.

Dave introduced his first song 'One Man Band' as being about "love, loss, Catholicism and the Wizard of Oz" - a boast that shows his reach, playfulness and cajones. His live set sticks pretty rigidly to his uptempo bluesy numbers, with Chris Saunders' twangy guitar well to the fore. His best song, 'City Lights', slower and more reflective, features some nifty, melodious organ. There have been comparisons made to Waits, Cash, Dylan and Williams, but I'd propose that he be seen as a somewhat threadbare Richard Hawley.

Abigail Washburn is a very talented folk singer/musician originally from Illinois, but now based in Nashville. She has been lauded by Newsweek for creating a "....gorgeous, joyful new sound" and has recently toured in the US with Steve Martin's bluegrass band. She has also been fortunate to have had albums produced by two esteemed knob-twiddlers, namely John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and Tucker Martine, who has worked with REM, Sufjan Stevens and the Decemberists.

This high calibre of collaborator is matched by her band, which is made up of bass, drums, twin violins and, in particular, Kai Welch, her song writing partner, who is equally adept on guitar, trumpet, keyboards and vocals, although his stand-up comedy attempts were hit and miss.

Abigail starts with the title track from her new album, 'City Of Refuge', where her trademark clawhammer banjo playing is highlighted. Two more songs from the album, 'Last Train' and 'Bring Me My Queen', showcase the impeccable musicianship of the band - brushed and malleted drums, swelling violins, dextrous keyboards and sweet harmonies. Backed by her flexible band, Abigail moves easily between styles - folk infused with splashes of blues, jazz, country and pop. The latter is evidenced on 'Chains', which could easily have been made by a Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac.

An interesting thread throughout the show is Abigail's obvious love and understanding of Chinese music. She majored in East Asian studies at college, has lived and studied in China, can speak Mandarin and has toured the country regularly. She plays a traditional Chinese mountain song, 'Taiyang', sans banjo, then teaches the audience to sing along with the words to 'Sa La', which they do enthusiastically - something that Abigail is both delighted and genuinely touched by. China is her "second home" and promoting Sino-Western relations is something that she is clearly passionate about.

She is brought back for two encores, singing a capella with Kai on the apron of the stage before a beautiful violin and bowed bass-led coda. The mutual appreciation between artist and audience is obvious.

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22nd JANUARY.
QUEEN'S SOCIAL CLUB.
REVIEWER - ANDREW HIRST.

Billed as 'The Eccentronic Review', this night was to be a showcase of Sheffield's best weird pop talent, culminating in the debut performance of local supergroup The Chanteuse and the Crippled Claw.

Openers Pygmy Globetrotters begin the evening with a set of predictable grimy synth-based dirges topped with snarling monotonic vocals, offering us something slightly unpleasant and not particularly striking. The second support, The Pony Harvest, is an entertaining maniac who mumbles nonsense over cheerily cheap sounding synth pop tracks and spends the majority of one song constantly hitting an ornamental owl, declaring its eventual survival of this ordeal "proof that Sheffield Wednesday are the best team".

Skywatchers, the third support, feel like they have so much more to offer than the altogether half-arsed set they deliver tonight. They clearly have a knack for writing a very solid pop song, and they sound extremely polished and well rehearsed, but the whole set lacked both feeling and any discernible individual streak that would have made them stand out from the countless legions of vaguely pleasant sounding acoustic synth pop artists.

The main event on the bill was The Chanteuse and the Crippled Claw, a supergroup consisting of 'The Crippled Claw' aka Adrian Flanagan (of Kings Have Long Arms fame), 'The Chanteuse' aka Liverpool's Candi Payne, Dean Honer of I Monster and Lucy Fawcett of Arch Nazards. Candi Payne has a striking voice and a commanding beauty, strangely at odds with the rest of the band; a veritable rag-tag bunch of oddballs. Adrian Flanagan spends most of the night skulking behind a keyboard, wearing both his shades and his bag throughout, occasionally making bizarre hand gestures at the audience and babbling strange jokes in between tracks. After a few songs he gets up and begins chewing hob-nobs into the mic before unceremoniously chucking them into the crowd. Honer (bald but sporting a large beard and hidden in the corner) and Fawcett (small, meek and unassuming) perform their roles flawlessly in the background, never once drawing attention from the quietly beautiful Payne and the entertainingly psychotic Flanagan.

Given their interesting stage presence I was hoping for something more interesting musically. Unfortunately, there isn't much here that particularly grabs me. Debut single 'Are You One?' is the standout song, its main refrain utterly infectious, drifting back into my head on and off days after this gig. Payne's voice recalls the best voices of Northern Soul and is a pleasure to listen to, almost making up for the moments of songwriting blandness. I can't help feeling that she will carry them along, her voice proving to be the main draw and allowing them to be lazy on the songwriting front. I really want them to prove me wrong and release another song as strong as 'Are You One?', but I'm not getting my hopes up.

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7TH FEBRUARY.
THE HARLEY.
REVIEWER - ROBERT COOKE.

For the second year in a row, Esben and the Witch are currently tipped for big things. In many ways little has changed since a year ago, almost to the day, when the trio last played at this venue to half as many people. After all, they've only just got round to releasing their debut album Violet Cries, a stunning combination of clattering percussion, feral guitars, wailing vocals and goth-folk aesthetics.

But before Esben and the Witch get the chance to prove whether they'll finally live up to the hype, Trophy Wife dominate the stage. There is more depth in this band than their name suggests, with gasping, sensitive and fragile vocals curiously and fascinatingly propelled from behind by an engine of percussion. Their sound is characterised by house-inspired rhythms.'White Horses' audibly bounces, while 'Discovery' cracks and blossoms into an abstract atmospheric jam. These tracks are club-ready, and it is this aspect of Trophy Wives which is the most derivative and the least interesting. They show their understanding of texture when their beats click into place, but what emerges tends to be fairly sterile, if danceable.

This is never a problem for tonight's headliners, as Esben and the Witch's songs never do quite kick in. Often, tightly processed beats flood from the speakers, but the tension this creates is never quite satisfied by the release of apocalyptic guitars that constantly feels like it is only a few bars away. This can be turned into a criticism when picking apart individual tracks, but when structural subversion of this sort comes in such a constant stream, it's an exhilarating live experience. They keep you captivated by constantly fooling you into expecting their energy to suddenly burst, but they're smarter than that. Their performance gives you all of the thrill of the anticipation and none of the anti-climax.

In this way, Esben and the Witch never impose an artificial structure on their music, but this doesn't mean their ideas are unresolved. In fact, it's the opposite - each passage feels more complete as it is driven to its natural conclusion. At times, it can be hard to know whether everything is happening at once or whether nothing is happening at all. Part of the intrigue of this band comes from not knowing how sounds are being created, or even which instrument is supposed to be creating them. This shouldn't be mistaken for indulgence though. The self-control and focus that Esben and the Witch practice is evidenced by vocalist Rachel Davies, who awakes from a trance at the end of each track, having spent it howling from behind her mop of hair. When the band leave the stage, it should be in the knowledge that they've awakened their audience to new possibilities within live performance, and music in general.

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28th January.
Fusion and Foundry.
Reviewer - Jack Scourfield.

For a number of reasons, I'd set myself against Radio 1's In New Music We Trust showcase night before I even passed through the doors of the Fusion and Foundry. My primary qualm is a fairly glaring one, and can probably be better expressed in an equation than in prose - In New Music We Trust + Pete Tong and Judge Jules = ??? Never has a misnomer been more blatant than when lining up these two aging disc spinners on the same bill as an act called Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. Then there were Radio1's 'new signings', Skream and Benga. Ooh, I wonder if they'll play any of that 'dubstep'? I hear it's quite good. Then there was the questionable terminology of the promise of the station's 'entire dance family'. With my head safely lodged up my own arse, the DJs from the Radio 1 dance family I would've most liked to see are Benji B and Gilles Peterson - both not on the bill. Oh dear, looks like some of the kids didn't want to come and visit grandma on this occasion. Another precursory irritation was that much of the good stuff wasn't actually available to your average reveller - or even your average Now Then reviewer - as the likes of Retro/Grade and messrs Skream and Benga played at a limited entry pre-show. The last - but by no means least - qualm that sprang itself upon me was when I discovered that Kutski was a hard dance DJ. And I'd have to watch him. Billy, pass me my shotgun.

As it turned out, Billy needn't have spent those four hours polishing my double-barrelled shooter. Arriving around half 10, we were greeted by the bobbing curls of Annie Mac, who was blitzing the Foundry crowd with some particularly fizzling electro and techno. She was followed in the main room by Pete Tong, who did us reviewers who love a hackneyed wise-crack no favours by failing to provide any notable "it's all gone..." moments, instead providing a fairly solid if slightly uninspiring two hours of Balearic tech-house.

A brief peek into the smaller Fusion room saw Judge Jules pumping his fists in the air as a fairly meagre but committed band of ravers swayed along to his trance offerings, but I scarpered before Kutski took to the decks, deciding that there were many things I'd rather do than reside in a half-empty second room listening to hard dance - most of them involving severing my testicles with a variety of rusty implements and then eating them.

Shortly after I accosted him in the back bar and told him I loved him, Rob da Bank took to the main room stage and ripped through an eclectic but rave-centric set, comprising plenty of drum 'n' bass and topping it off with a heartily-received 'Out of Space'. By this point - around 3am - the crowd was beginning to thin out a bit, although those who remained were still partying like it was 1999 - which it may as well have been, considering the distinct lack of any particularly 'new' music that was seeping through the speakers.

While the event may have slightly compromised on its pledge of delivering fresh musical cuts, the DJs present certainly knew which tunes to draw on to keep the masses happy. We headed for the exit shortly after Kissy Sell Out interjected a set of jump-up electro and dubstep with a bass-heavy remix of Imogen Heap/Jason DeRulo, accompanied by what seemed like the night's 3000th confetti explosion, but I left feeling better satisfied by the night's entertainment than I'd been expecting. While it may have packed more bells and whistles than freshly pressed exclusive tracks in its suitcase, Radio 1 found itself a welcome guest in Sheffield, and there were few in attendance who wouldn't welcome them back with open arms.

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by Now Then Sheffield

Next article in issue 36

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