Words by Ed King / Pics by Paul Reynolds
“About the price of a small mortgage. But I’ve got some friends who live on Machu Picchu, so…”
I don’t like the man to my right; we’ve never met, but I know that much about him and me. Him and I. Sometimes, when people are talking to more than their audience, they say the most ludicrous things. Fatuous things. No one in this room has ‘friends’ on Machu Picchu.
My +1 is in Chester so I’ve come alone to the Institute (a Birmingham landmark that holds much of my past) to watch The Staves use us as “guinea pigs” for their new material. No one in the room seems to mind either, but as Camilla tells us “it’s not going to change”. Opening with the title track off their new EP, and the precursor to that precarious second album, ‘Blood I Bled’ eventually drowns us all. Soft with clear vocals, identifiable; an intricate guitar picks into a hurried crash of harmonies and big rolling drums. It’s the first of the ‘new material’ I’ve heard from The Staves and there’s a certain melodic fervor, one I recognise but didn’t expect. Spectacular.
There’s a mournful impetus to the accompanying video too – an ambiguous rites of passage narrative filmed in India (the territory that’s owned the last decade of my life) but tonight’s on stage delivery is noticeably more powerful.
‘Steady’, another new track, keeps Camilla firmly in the front, with Emily’s instrumental smorgasbord landing on a glockenspiel topping. Again the big rolling drums and hollow, echoed back line threaten their way round the room. Again the sound is bold and ferocious.
Back to the more familiar harmonies based Folk with ‘Wisely & Slow’, but delivered tonight with extra confidence. It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Staves, and the world keeps on turning, but there’s an authoritative difference here – a sense of ownership. I also write the word ‘travelled’ into my notebook.
‘Black & White’ follows with another distant thunderstorm, before ‘Tongue Behind My Teeth’ reminds a lot of the room why they’re subconsciously here. It’s an odd moment in the set for me, and to explain why you’ve got to go back, with a wavy screen dream sequence and disappearing echo… go back… go back… go back…
I first saw The Staves at The Glee Club in April 2012 and my overall impression was pleasant, but not overwhelming. Then about six months later Dead & Born & Grown came out, which slowly grew through my car speakers over another couple of months. But I held onto my ambiguity – despite the careful lyrics and subtle brilliance encroaching further with every slow, snow covered journey. That was the winter I nearly crashed, at 5mph, into a double decker bus.
Then I saw The Staves perform at the Hare & Hounds, to an early queue and packed out room that murmured “Jools Holland, Jools Holland” in reverent tones. I’ll admit it, I wasn’t in the best of moods; between the fawning Radio 4 hyperbole and the drunk twat constantly heckling behind me (at a Folk gig?!?!) I’d just about given up.
But it was during that set that the well publicised ‘acoustic Folk trio from Watford’ started to take shape for me. I began to see what I’d missed at The Glee Club, and when they played ‘Tongue Behind My Teeth’ (a track I’d previously, readily dismissed) it clicked. I clicked. Something did something and I was forced into new opinion. But as I hear it tonight, played against a backdrop of new material, the track that once won me back now sounds comfortably two dimensional. Not bad, not at all, just not as good as what else is on offer.
“…I’m hoping, I’m hoping that I’m alright.” Jessica’s soft vocal lead, her guitar. The big, hollow drums; the glockenspiel. Another song I don’t know. The unconscious wave of bobbing heads looks up and looks out.
The Staverley-Taylors break for some well groomed banter and a pirate EP offer I would hear again in The Guardian. “We burnt them in our mum’s kitchen,” confesses Camilla, and I watch the thick blood ranks close in a little closer.
The Staves, as they are presented to us, have an onstage in-joke humour that is funny and endearing, but more funny – although the tightness tonight seems tinged with something else. A warm brick wall (not that we warrant anything other) but so potentially solid I wonder how detached three years of touring can make you. What makes angels draw claws. ‘Pay Us No Mind’ edges in suggestions of darker times, lyrical intent and an anger we should perhaps already know.
A trio of new tracks roll into each other, with the last bringing Jessica back to the front of a laconic snare and slow Blues Rock. The audience go a little bat shit clappy and get ‘Mexico’ to reward them – the big, hollow drums, again, announcing the hidden battle between what was and what is to be.
‘Teeth White’ and ‘Eagle Song’ close off the main set; the former sounding like the result of rehearsal room humor (or cabin fever) the latter like a pantomime as Camilla’s informs us “…is our last song”.
And as we earn our next “strange piece of theatre”, like good hungry seals, The Staves open up a two track encore with ‘Facing West’ – the album track that made me first notice Camilla. Tonight she owns it, more, and delivers her song (for it feels like hers alone) in a way I can only image has been fashioned on countless stages in front of countless strange faces. Intimacy must be hard on such a wide and public scale.
‘Winter Trees’ finishes the night in a tight and tired manner, a beautiful song performed too often, before we huddle into jumpers and shuffle down the Institute steps. There’s a lot of noise and commentary on the way out (from a crowd surprised to be back in a venue they once needed fake NUS cards enter) lots of “the first time”, “the last time”, “yeah, yeah… well that’s Vernon.” The man to my right is now explaining how he “didn’t want to do the whole Harley thing.”
But I resign and stay schtum, noticing a much more interesting production credit on the Blood I Bled EP I now hold in my hand. Besides I’m cold and alone, not the best time to bring up 80’s Pop culture.
And if my history of reviewing The Staves has taught me anything, besides the distinction between a sound and a song, it’s that I should just keep my mouth shut. For a couple of weeks, at least.
Blood I Bled EP is out now, with The Staves second album – If I Was, due for release in February 2015. The find out more on The Staves, visit http://www.thestaves.com/
For further listings from the Institute, visit http://mamacolive.com/theinstitute/
For more from Birmingham Promoters, visit http://birminghampromoters.com/