Stick in the Wheel bring alternative folk and electronic drones to Centrala, with the help of Elspeth Anne and Organchrist

Words and pics by Emily Doyle

Centrala has established itself in recent years as the natural home for Birmingham’s most esoteric bills. Tonight is no different, as stripped back folk nestles against harsh techno.

Elspeth Anne opens to an attentive audience who sit cross legged on the floor. The drone of a shruti box fills the room. Its reedy tones seem to trickle into all the gaps in your brain, filling them with a comforting warmth.

Anne’s vocals cut through, fragile but magnetic. She admits to being a little nervous, but thoroughly charms the audience and each song greeted with riotous applause. The set is a mixture of originals and traditional folk tunes, the latter being prefaced with carefully researched provenance.

Anne’s staccato guitar playing punctuates the set, lending a bluesier edge to tracks like ‘Coward’ and ‘Wet Peace’. The whole performance is sonically raw, emotionally raw, and arrestingly beautiful. Whether on wry originals or loving renditions of ‘Peggy Gordon’, ‘When I Was A Young Girl’ and ‘The Brisk Lad’, Anne’s queer alt-folk is spellbinding.

Nothing could be a better warm up for Stick in the Wheel, who kick off their set with their own version of ‘The Brisk Lad’. The crowd are on their feet now, craning to see. The band remain seated. Nicola Kearey looks positively annoyed at all the fuss, though she delights in introducing ‘Me N Becky’, an account of the 2011 London Riots.

Stick in the Wheel describe their sound as “London roots music”, and every song reverberates with working class joy and fury. Standards like strike ballad ‘Watercress-o’ sound contemporary as ever sung in Kearey’s east London drawl. Guitarist Ian Carter’s intricate fingerpicking weaves through the arrangements, dragging ancient melodies through a well-equipped pedalboard.

Footstomping fan favourites like ‘Bedlam’ and ‘Villon song’ find a bit of Oi! attitude in music hall rhythms that’s equal parts class conscious and irresistibly danceable. Siân Monaghan’s restrained percussion ties it all together.

“Anyway, here’s some ambient shit,” announces Kearey, drifting into the electronic haze of 2021’s Tonebeds for Poetry; plasticky autotune and minimal beats build their interpretation of ‘The Blind Beggar’s Daughter of Bethnal Green’, following by the aching accordion drones of ‘A Tree Must Stand in The Earth’. The set has all the peaks and troughs of a club DJ set, and all the camaraderie of a local folk night.

After a mammoth performance from Stick in the Wheel, the audience are ready to dance. Enter Organchrist. Bristolian avante-garde techno duo have brought only their heaviest industrial beats tonight. Overseeing a tangle of patch cables and flashing LEDs, the pair are cloaked in psychedelic lights as they preach to the choir.

Organchrist’s recorded catalogue errs on the side of noise and drone, but tonight the BPM is firmly above 120 as they take Centrala on a techno-psych exploration.

The crowd seem to delight in throwing the most unhinged shapes possible to the unceasing grind. Without a word – without really even looking up from the tabletop rig – they guide us through a brain tickling repertoire of sounds to the midnight hour.

What mad genius could possibly have curated such a night…?

They’ve asked us to keep their identity under wraps, but we will say this – if a gentleman in neon yellow face paint and a hat adorned with pheasant feathers asks you if you would like to come to his dance class, BR recommends you take him up on it.

Stick in the Wheel + Elspeth Anne, Organchrist at Centrala 30 September / Emily Doyle

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