29 May Islington Academy, London 21/05/2009
There are a number of things that strike you immediately about the Smoke Fairies. Appearing from nowhere, with minimal fuss, to a smattering of polite applause, they don’t look like anyone’s idea of a kick-ass roots outfit. Two lithe, unprepossessing, somewhat posh girls with acoustic guitars, in tidy summer dresses who look like they’d be more at home at a village fete handing out glasses of punch than crossing a flood-choked river on horseback at midnight, only Katherine’s (brand-new-looking) cowboy boots indicate their leanings toward what used to be called ‘country and western’ back in my day. Their stage persona is quiet and unfussy, but confident. They know exactly what they’re doing, and any doubts about whether a couple of Home Counties head girls have any claim to the blues are soon hushed by the squeak and bulge of a mournful slide guitar, and the sound of vocal harmonies that are youthful and strong , but tinted with ancient knowledge from desolate landscapes. Their music is low-key, sombrely lit, expertly played, their lyrics a cracked window into an empty house, where the desert has already started piling up under the doors. They sing of ghosts and flames and sorrows, relationships that perished but will haunt them til they die, ‘the Devil in my mind’…..it’s more than mere pastiche or lip service to the darker places in folk, country and bluegrass, this has the bitter tang of the real thing, of emotions felt (or remembered), of things lost in some terrible conflagration. In the space of six, spare, brief songs they deftly conjure a fog of atmosphere that presses lightly but firmly on the closed eyelids of everyone listening, reminding them of the glory and magic that can be found in darkness.
The unadorned music by itself is much more of a gift than most groups offer their audience, but the other thing that the Smoke Fairies have in spades is a sense of humour. Their inter-song banter has the air of a well-worn comedy routine about it, Katherine cooing delightedly about the new (and admittedly pretty bitchin’) cup-holder clinging to the side of her mic-stand, Jessica admonishing her with weary tolerance while they tune their guitars. At one point there is confusion about why they have two different set lists, and it plays out like the quietest, most polite Abbott and Costello routine you’ve ever seen. These occasional cracks in their deadpan, none-more-black demeanour are a pretty significant part of the charm that is going to take them far above third-on-the-bill status, and, if there’s any justice at all, take them there quickly. Their songs do that thing that all great music does, make you yearn for places you’ve never been, make you miss people you’ve never known. Right now, they’re a secret that’s being passed around in whispers, but when they kick off big-time and become a hipster douchebag name to drop in student unions across the land, it’ll be good to remember being there on the ground floor.
Smoke Fairies would be the undisputed highlight of most other bills, but most other bills don’t feature Liz Green. A diminutive, chatty, extremely likeable waif in an old-fashioned mini-dress with little lit, paper-cut-out silhouettes to illustrate her songs, she sings an a capella song about the tragic fate of cock robin, his little paper-cut-out legs sticking up on the table beside her. Actually, ’sings’ is an inadequate description of the sound that emanates from Liz Green’s head: she….warbles? Ululates? It’s an uncanny voice, at once delicate and bird-like, yet somehow weighty and powerful. It has a wee bit of Morrissey to it (not just the northern inflections) and a whole lot of Bessie Smith. This is the blues, REAL blues, proper, flesh-and-blood songs about people dealing with their troubles with attitude and sass, sung with wit and compassion by yet another slip of a girl wise beyond her years. It’s a million miles away from Robert Cray and Eric Clapton and their anodyne millionaire’s music. When Liz straps on her acoustic for a jaunty sprint through her second song ‘Bad Medicine’ you can practically hear the pop and crackle of ancient vinyl behind her voice. Again there is the sense of something mysterious and very, very old making itself heard to us. She sings Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Dying Crapshooter Blues’, and gives it just the right balance of gravitas and unrestrained joy it needs: this is the song, she tells us, that made her want to sing, and she makes sure that we can hear exactly why that would be. She ends her (again, all-too-brief) set with ‘The most depressing song I’ve ever written’, and gives it her all: the visual punchline she gives it on the paper silhouette is horrible and funny, and if you want to know what it is, you’ll just have to check her out live. As with the Smoke Fairies, her not inconsiderable charm and showmanship are destined to make her something of a household name, and in a just and beautiful world it would be her impish features that gazed from magazine covers, and her extraordinary, bird-like blues which drifted through every supermarket and fast-food chain in the land. A man can dream….
The main event take the stage one by one, and the rapturous greeting they receive is a thing to behold. I am, I have to admit, something of a latecomer to the church of The Handsome Family. They were always a ‘like what I’ve heard, I’ll get round to listening to them properly someday’ kind of band. After tonight I am a full-blooded convert to their cause. Tonight’s theme of ’staggering beauty regularly interspersed with staggering wit’ reaches its pinnacle here. Brett and Rennie Sparks are the epitome of cool, in life as well as music: their easy banter the result of a shared life lived at least partly in public, the easy give-and-take of people who don’t need to impress anyone, least of all each other. Brett’s incredible voice moves from the ocean depths to the highest treetops in a single bound, Rennie harmonising quietly off to one side, while strumming an omnichord or occasionally blowing into a mellotron. With all her snappy putdowns and misanthropic jokes , Rennie Sparks marks herself out as yet another Funny Woman In Alt. Roots Music. She writes the lyrics, and it’s clear that we’re dealing with a natural, incorrigible raconteuse. She’s unable to open her mouth without some little anecdotal gem dropping out. The band are tight and powerful, the songs alternately melancholy and sarcastic. They sing about bottomless pits and forgotten lakes, murders and overdoses , the mysteries of bird migration, the mysteries of the sea. One minute they sound like Johnny Cash at San Quentin, the next Leon Redbone in a rocking chair. Brett’s voice has the odd tint of Smog to it, the odd tint of Pavarotti. They sing a new batch of songs, one a tender love poem from one insect to another (country meets Kafka, niiiiice), one inspired , Rennie tells us, by the motion of a cement mixer. It’s an odd, riveting collision of elements, the masterful, classic songwriting, the skewed JG Ballard view of the world, the cosy, easy interplay of band and audience, and the band with each other. They remain just this side of quirky, never allowing a cute idea or concept to be the whole song, understanding their craft.and honouring it at every turn. During their penultimate song, Brett breaks a guitar string, and consequently giggles his way through the last number (which apparently requires quite a lot of his out-of-commission axe) and someone says something about giant explosions. As they stalk off for the final time, the waves of love that roll off the audience practically knock me over. The whole night has been an epiphany for me, the sort I am constantly glad I’ve never grown out of. A few times I look out over the rapturous faces bathed in blue stage light over my shoulder, united in joy and rapt with attention.
Handsome? Maybe…Family? Definitely