Words & pics by Ed King
It’s an odd moment, when you realise, quite clearly, what has changed and what has always stayed the same. My hair, for example, will always be a mess (‘like a scarecrow on crack’ is my de facto description) a February sun will never shine in England and supermarkets will always be awful.
But as I stand in the O2 (another change) Institute’s main room – not the downstairs ‘Library’, but the big balcony crested centre hall – I can see the inescapable face of success. The Staves are back in Birmingham, playing to a Sunday evening audience that you can count with three zeros. They are slick. They are strong. They look polished and tired. They are standing in front of a floor to ceiling back drop with their name up in lights. The awkward in jokes and Frank Spencer framed photograph seem like a long time ago.
Opening with the somewhat bleakly titled ‘Hopeless’, the Staveley-Triptych introduce themselves with a clean a capella and one of the ‘deluxe’ additions to If I Was. A big sound carefully mastered, the room settles into a tacit hush as the sister’s close part harmony fills the O2 Institute’s cavernous main arena (I was once told the scaffolding costs alone, when renovating the main hall, ran into excess of £40k).
Then the considered finger picked strings of ‘Steady’ float through the speakers, before the cheeky confidence and twisted steel of ‘Black & White’ wrap up tonight’s immediate three part reminder of The Staves’ sophomore album. I had wondered why we were still getting the If I Was tour, with The Staves having showcased their follow up LP in The Temple room about a year ago, but it’s clear. This is the stage show that has been taken them all round the world, this is the band behind The Staves, and this is the sound that has earned them the right to a room of this size. Which they fill. Confidently. On a Sunday. In Birmingham. Christ on a bike…
‘Winter Trees’ brings us back a simpler taste from The Staves’ debut, before the absurdly gripping ‘Blood I Bled’ thunders around the open hall. The shift in production between album #1 and album #2 has been, in part, one of the more exciting reasons to watch The Staves evolve – with the women at the centre maintaining a strong identity, whilst mopping up the spoils of successful collaboration. If I Was is brilliant, not Vernon’s, distinctly The Staves’, and as I watch their full swing stage show delivery I am reminded of how impressive these three sisters can be live.
“…great to be back in Birmingham, we literally always have a good gig here. Thank you for coming back.” And I think they mean it too, which is more an indictment of Birmingham’s notorious ticket sales than of on the road white lie. Plus, apparently, “Lenny Henry is a fan…” so there’s some serious Brummie/by-proxy endorsement.
Bar one beautiful cover, a mellifluous manipulation of Bombay Bicycle Club’s eastern tinged ‘Feel’, the set continues to jump from album to album – with the Dead & Born & Grown supporting cast getting an If I Was makeover. Even Emily seems to have adopted a bass drum, queue synonyms for sonorous, with the full band version of ‘Mexico’ something genuinely quite special.
But the evening’s highlight, for me, comes from the keyboard, as Jessica takes over the ivory (plastic) for a beautifully uplifting delivery of ‘Sadness Don’t Own Me.’ Having spent most of my teenage years in Tori Amos exile I don’t find melancholy too difficult a pill to chew up and swallow. But there is something so raw, so honest, about this album track that as Jessica squeezes the hand of her on stage eldest, whilst moving back to her guitar mic, I can’t help but feel both honored and intrusive.
But in true Staveley-Taylor irreverent wit the air is cut into familiar slices as Emily notices a noose lying behind her sister – with the oddly placed motif of death being so disturbing and pertinent, there is no way out but humour. Then a confident stride though ‘Make it Holy’, my personal favourite from If I Was, paves the way for an almost threatening ‘Damn it All’ denouement. There is a distant, polite, even scared silence, before the O2 Institute erupts in foot stamping approval. The couple in front of me stop and embrace.
The encore gets started with a campfire a capella (cited on the set list as ‘Tired As Fuck’) which builds into a back line boosted, electric guitar rock out. Then it’s the supremely well crafted ‘Teeth White’ to finally close the show, giving The Staves another chance to show off their droll beauty and the heavier end of their spectrum. Between the last two songs and the occasional on stage foot stamp tonight, I think I can see album three emerging. Rock, rock on.
We’re done. The Staves have left the building. FIRE EXIT signs and obnoxious house lights illuminate a quickly vacating crowd, who courteously slide through a sea of plastic glasses and circling security and into a well oiled merch stand.
I stand back, like at the end of a long haul flight, and wait for the aisles to clear. I am, again, surprised and impressed by The Staves; I thought tonight was going to be Round Two of If I Was in The Temple, another chance to see the same as before, but instead walked into a significant main room success. The production, the sound, the on stage ensemble, this is some serious stuff from The Staves and their relentless tour machine.
But me being wrong is no real surprise, so I wait for the room by writing review notes and self-deformations of character in my notebook. Production. Backdrop. Purple. Rugs. Drums. Gordon is a moron.
And as for The Staves, I expect they’ll be back in this city one day – where we can clamber together again and do the whole thing over with album three. Perhaps, again, at the O2 Institute. Perhaps, again, on a Sunday. But wherever, whenever, and with the confidence of a gracious looser, I expect the room will be full.
For more on The Staves, visit http://www.thestaves.com/
For more from the O2 Institute, including full event listings and online tickets sales, visit http://o2institutebirmingham.co.uk/
For more from Birmingham Promoters, visit http://birminghampromoters.com/