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A Magazine for Sheffield

Anais Mitchell / Damo Suzuki / Johnny Marr / Kvelertak.

Library Theatre.
6th March.

Reviewer - Rob Aldam.

Anaïs Mitchell has been making beautiful music for over a decade now. When the Vermont folk singer-songwriter first started out she was loosely compared to Joanna Newsom due to the vague similarities between their voices. It was not until the release of Hadestown, a folk opera with guest appearances by Ani DiFranco and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, that she started to attract notice from a wider audience. She followed this up with the critically acclaimed Young Man in America, which saw her hailed as the "queen of modern folk music" in some quarters. Her latest project, Child Ballads, sees her joined by Jefferson Hamer to record a collection of songs from the Child Ballads, a collection of over 300 English and Scottish ballads and their American variants, collated by Francis James Child in the late 19th century.

It's great to see the Library Theatre so full. After her great performance at the Greystones last year it's hardly surprising. There is a genial atmosphere as the pair arrive on stage, and they are both in a relaxed and talkative mood. One of the most delightful aspects of this evening's performance is that they provide some background information for each song. They begin with the 'Sir Patrick Spens', their voices working perfectly in tandem, Anaïs taking the high end and Jefferson the low.

They follow this up with 'Clyde Waters'. Their grounding in Americana seaps through, making it sound almost like a country ballad, before the question and answer of 'Riddles Wisely Expounded'. Each song is a story, and 'Willie's Song' tells the tale of the eponymous hero whose wife has been cursed by his sorceress mother to be eternally pregnant. Before the song, we discover that Anaïs is exactly halfway through her own pregnancy, which adds a personal dimension to the track.

In a brief interlude from playing songs from the new album, they both alternately take the lead in performing a selection of their own work. Whilst Anaïs's voice is as powerful and beautiful as ever, Jefferson proves to be a revelation when his voice is given free rein to soar, particularly on the sublime 'Ragged World We Spanned'.

'Tam Lin' and 'Geordie' receive the best reception I've seen from an audience in Sheffield for a long time. They end the night with the stunning 'Young Man in America' before coming to the front of the stage to do an acoustic cover of Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris's 'Hearts on Fire'. A fitting end to a wonderful evening.


Bar Abbey.
17th March.

Reviewer - Paul Graham Raven.

In a basement bar beneath an old cinema, a chap straight out of a BBC4 documentary about the history of bookbinding informs us that "This one is a collection of colloquial British bird names", before coaxing a cacophony of chirps, squeaks, mumbles and roars from a gaggle of performers who resemble a hyperreal infographic for explaining the demography of Guardian readers.

It's hard to see Juxtavoices, the "antichoir" in question, because the stage is too full of kit for them to use, and the venue too full of audience, leaving them squeezed up at the front, fighting with the chatter. But the smiles I see suggest they're not taking it too seriously, and when you're doing material that sounds like Stockhausen remixing Samuel Beckett plays at the bottom of a K-hole, that's maybe for the best. For optimal results, deploy somewhere with ecclesiastical acoustics and a more respectful audience.

Legend has it that Can discovered Damo Suzuki when they spotted him wandering down the street one day, clearly in a state of advanced chemical refreshment. Nowadays Suzuki recapitulates his role of wandering minstrel across the globe, rolling into town after town to perform with local kraut-noise-drone-ambient outfits. Tonight's lucky lot are Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere.

I have no idea whether there's any standard procedure for these shows, but I imagine their approach - mount stage, grab instruments, improvise wildly without interruption - is probably it. Suzuki just lowers his head and does his thing, chattering out mutant riffs of broken phonemes. The Orchestra are heavy on thick synth sounds and deconstructed motorik drumming, and the net effect is that of standing around at the back of the Glastonbury chill-out tent circa 1998, trying to shake off a hash-cake haze while a glossolalic old Japanese guy tries to buy your shoes.

It's easy to forget that Can's recordings weren't pure improvisation; they were edited down from hours of unstructured noodling. The method is to produce masses of material, then cherrypick the best bits, leaving the rest on the cutting-room floor. But one can't curate a live set on the fly, and so for every minute of wonderful weirdness or sublime groove, we wade through five of melodic chaos.

That said, improvisation at least retains the capacity to surprise, albeit in a limited set of ways, and surprising music is in short supply in these postmodern times. That a musical mode developed decades ago is a last bastion of novelty should perhaps be taken as a caution, but when Suzuki puts his serene smile back on at the end of the night, it's hard to worry - about anything.


18th March.

Reviewer - Lewis Pendleton.

Legendary is a word bandied about much too liberally these days. Dead-eyed racehorse owner Michael Owen, ageing BBC weathermen, even this writer's local chippy owner has been afforded legendary status in certain quarters. But the welcome that greeted Johnny Marr, striding onstage to the theme from 1970s TV show The Persuaders, left no-one in any doubt that they were in the presence of a man whose cultural impact and pure talent genuinely warrants the adjective.

The 49-year old Mancunian, who reinvented the arpeggio and helped create a unique soundscape for people to forget it was the 1980s, was in town to promote his first solo album The Messenger and at the same time showcase some of his stunning back catalogue to an excitable and sold-out Leadmill.

Looking sharp in a grey woollen suit and buttoned-up purple shirt, Marr seemed mostly at ease centre-stage, a few nervy glances towards the mixing desk apart. Guitar hero he might be but now it is only his name on the bill and he is clearly still adjusting to shouldering the burden single-handedly.

Not that he needed to worry too much. His band are no slouches and any limitations he may have as a vocalist were offset by a charismatic stagecraft, which brought about shades of Steve Marriott, Rory Gallagher and Wilko Johnson, betraying the figures that a young Marr was learning from on the way to becoming similarly revered.

It is easy to forget Marr was only 23 when The Smiths split in 1987. You can forgive him for resenting that distant time, but he is too smart to disown songs beloved by millions and now woven into the national fabric. Superlative versions of 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' and 'London' glimpsed at what a powerful and inspiring force the band were, although they sat uneasily with his less musically soaring new material. That said, new single 'Upstarts' is a great pop record with its bursts of spiky melody, and 'Lockdown' has an insistent groove and New Orderstyle lead that found favour among the disparate groups that made up the crowd.

Particular highlights were 'Forbidden City' and 'Getting Away With It' from Marr's project with Bernard Sumner, Electronic. The former's air of gentle melancholy complemented a set heavy with anthems and served to remind that Marr has never stopped trying to stretch himself artistically, even if he is inextricably tied to that four-year period when he changed music, as demonstrated by his encore; 'How Soon Is Now?' and 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' fizzed with verve and vitality, Marr truly dazzling on his custom Fender Jaguar. Raising it aloft as the last chord rang out, a special night ended for 800 people, another to go down in Leadmill legend.


7th March.

Reviewer - Jim Rangeley.

On 7th March Corporation played host to a horde of Scandinavian rock, hosting three bands from the Northlands, all of whom excel on record in their own field. With members of local bands in the crowd - While She Sleeps and The Black Spiders both in attendance - we knew to expect quality. The night turned out to be an unexpected family affair, with the father of a member of headline act Kvelertak performing in opening act El Doom.

El Doom and the Born Electric are a Norwegian prog rock band who immediately drew the attention of the crowd by opening with Black Sabbath. Fronted by megaphone toting, cowbell ringing, Stetson wearing Ole Petter Andreassen (otherwise known as El Doom), and backed by the similarly extravagant Born Electric, their sound is like the angry love child of Mastodon and Queens of the Stone Age - an eclectic mix of meandering prog with a synth edge cutting through solid guitar playing.

The memorably named Truck Fighters were the next act to take to the stage. A Swedish three-piece doom desert stoner rock outfit with passion and strength, Truck Fighters are a great sounding group with blues influenced riffs and a unflinching vocal style. But despite the interesting variation in single riff songs and the gazelle-like stage presence of guitarist Dango (Niklas Källgren), sadly they didn't kick me up the arse in a live setting like they did on record.

Kvelertak formed the third and final act of the Scandinavian three-way; a tuneful hardcore-twinged rock ensemble fronted by Erlend Hjelvik, a beast of a man whose vocals and stage presence are something to behold. Having three guitarists could be seen as a gimmick, but it is clear that this band's musical depth and size is moulded by the number of guitars. With songs like 'Mjød', 'Fossegrim' and 'Blodtørst' they have an incredible selection from their debut self-titled album and Meir, which came out last month. This brand of high-tempo, punk-infused black metal is perfect on the live stage, and with a name that translates to 'Stranglehold', one should expect a no holds barred rampant beatdown of a gig. That's definitely what we got.


Next article in issue 61

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