Strange and wonderful times: I find myself today writing my second live report inside a week. Though last evening was my first evening venture out in sixteen months, not only was the superlative quality of the occasion sufficient to steady my nerves, but I had another dose of déjà vu: if my previous review (Stone Bear) was of a band who'd played at my most recent inside gig, then who'd have guessed that the next one would feature an artist from my penultimate night out before lockdown? Am I revisiting last year's gigs in reverse?
At any rate, irrespective of strange patterns, I would have been delighted to restart indoors performances with such an artist as Ellie Gowers . However the context added extra levels of a sense of the special: not only did the gig mark the first event of Kenilworth Arts Festival 2021 (hats off to them for their efforts to salvage something of the year with a series of stand alone gigs like this followed by a cluster in September) but this evening was actually a date on a proper tour: the final (hometown) leg of her "Parting Breath" one, celebrating the EP of that name which we reviewed here in the magazine on March 5th.
You might expect the confluence of such a talent & the circumstances to create something of great quality & you'd be right. Playing in front of a responsibly socially distanced audience in this beautiful space, (Abbey Hill United Reformed Church in Kenilworth) Ellie was sublime. Sitting watching & listening to her, I was thinking on how I've tended to see her mostly in lower ceilinged spaces: given the space above her tonight, her remarkable voice soared and she adjusted her performance accordingly.
Whether the mood of the past months entered the occasion as well as the chance to make her environment an integral part of the sound, Ellie approached how she played somewhat differently to how I've seen her recently (if that adverb makes much sense given the time scales). She is adept at intimate performances and they certainly play to her strengths, yet even so, she has often varied her dynamics to include the unleashing of appropriate power at times. There was less of this on this occasion: Ellie really let silence play a part in most of the songs and even in her angrier songs such as "The Sky is on Fire", the over riding sense was more of sorrow and melancholy.
Much of her more recent (here we go again) material has tended to express distress over the stupidities of the modern world, whether ecological like the above mentioned song, social media ("Against the Tide") or the (as yet unreleased) anti-HS2 "Waking Up To Stone", all of which were played and all of which expressed the pity of the situation as much as her justified anger. This scepticism over the way the world is going was beautifully balanced with songs which reflect her lockdown era exploration of the past, whether it be via her own record collection (which led to a cover of Anne Briggs' version of "The Snow It Melts Soonest") or her projects engaging with local music and folklore (so we also had Pete Grassby's "The Last Warwickshire Miner" and an interesting adaptation of "Poor Old Horse" as collected by Cecil Sharp).
It is clear (and Ellie was engagingly frank onstage with admitting the lows, especially when lockdown first hit and her world of music largely taken from her) that she spent her time away from us profitably. Not only has she been working on the folklore project and others such as the Ondervinden "Folk Effect", but there have been several new songs created: several of which we heard. In fact, despite not having played more than a handful of gigs since I last saw her on February 29th 2020 (see the review of that night in the magazine on March 1st), her setlist had evolved significantly from that evening. As you might imagine, the "Parting Breath" four tracks all appeared as did fan favourites such as "For A While" and her customary a cappella set opener "The Falcon" by Richard & Mimi Farina. However many of the other songs were new to me & that surely is yet another sign of a progressive as well as talented artist. In fact she talked of the importance to her of getting recordings done for the EP during lockdown to capture songs she had had for a while, so she can move on. As a fan, you can tell how well a musician is doing in this respect when songs you love have to make way in a setlist, to make way for newer ones of equal of even greater stature.
As I say, this was an evolved Ellie from the previous occasion I'd seen her and how much the circumstances have shaped that or how much we saw signs of the next stage of her evolution, perhaps only time will tell. On a personal level, I have always appreciated (and often mentioned in reviews) her passion in her performance coming out in her dancing while playing, often stomping along as an outlet for her intensity. I noticed last night that her customary boots had given way to heeled shoes (a nod to the event and the venue or a sign of things to come?) which made this much harder, though I smiled to myself as from time to time she couldn't stop herself from this endearing and trademark trait.
I was extremely glad to get out & to enjoy such a classy evening: may it just be the start of many more. In the case of Ellie, I'm delighted that she is finally out again doing what she is so good at, and like so many others, I really hope she can pick right back up where she left off and reach the heights her talent & commitment deserve.
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