Espers / Sharron Kraus / Voice of the Seven Woods

  • London
  • United Kingdom
  • Camden Dingwalls
  • 2007-04-26

Opening the evening was British folk minstrel Sharron Kraus who offered a set of two halves, the first being her performing solo, with her original and traditional works recalling the female late 1960s British folk revivalists Shirley Collins, June Tabor, Maddy Pryor and Sandy Denny, with alternately or simultaneously beautiful/haunting, uplifting/wallowing melodies and moods carved out with voice and acoustic guitar work. For the second half Kraus was joined by Meg Baird and Helena Espvall of main act Espers, so that the trio could perform tracks off their Leaves From Off The Tree album. The music is in a very similar vein, but with the addition of backing vocals and a second guitar as well as the extra edge of the cello accompaniment giving the music an extra lift and different kind of power to that of the solo folk musician.

he uses samplers and effects to build and layer up the sounds, creating something quite dramatic and affecting

Although going under the name Voice of the Seven Woods, the second act was actually another solo artist, Rick Tomlinson, although the project has involved several other people for various performances and recordings. In-keeping with both the spirit of the name ‘Voice of the Seven Woods’ and the evening’s musical themes Tomlinson’s work is based in folk forms and specifically the experimental folk forms which sprouted out in the 1960s. Although having many different musical influences there are two artists, John Fahey and Bert Jansch, who seem most present within the form and sound of Voice of the Seven Woods’ music, although given an interesting, personal and modern twist. Some of Tomlinson’s tracks are more standard finger-picked numbers, sometimes with vocals but more often instrumental, offering complex riffs and intertwining melodies, switching between them and building up and breaking down cleverly. However, at other points he uses samplers and effects to build and layer up the sounds, creating something quite dramatic and affecting. Voice of the Seven Woods is a fascinating project by someone with not just a talent at the guitar but an interesting mind and approach to creating ‘folk’ songs.

Headliners Espers had spent the previous night in a Dublin hospital due to their drummer having been bitten by a spider a couple of hours before they left the US. Apparently he got through the show ok but then needed hospitalisation — the next day, though still not 100%, he was deemed well enough for the band to be able to leave the hospital and fly over to London for this show. Understandably sleepy, the band were apologetic after their performance for the slight drowsy mood which may have permeated the set, however, this is a sleepy sounding band at the best of times, and there was no identifiable difference…

The band’s spacey, ethereal take on folk music fits with late sixties/early seventies acid/psychedelic trends and also stands suitably near to the work of major British groups like Pentangle and Fairport Convention. The groups very impressive second studio album II provided almost all of the material performed here, the band promising to provide some newer material next time that they’re over. It is perhaps understandable that their is a lack of new material in the time since that record’s release last year due firstly to touring time as well as the fact that members are involved in other projects (main vocalist Meg Baird for one as well as the work with Sharron Kraus discussed above has a solo album coming out next month) but there was no complaints from any crowd members at hearing the II tracks.

the acoustic guitars hold a steady frame from which the other instruments leap off

The sextet, which instrumentation-wise features guitars (two acoustic, one electric), cello, drums and bass, and sometimes keyboards/synthesisers opened with the droning waves of “Widow’s Weed”, following with the more sprightly “Mansfield and Cyclops” with both and in fact all of the tracks played giving situation for lengthy instrumental explorations either before, between or after verses. The alluring and haunting shimmer of “Dead Queen” came next, some of the spacey effect taken out with the single live vocal line, but switching it for a more close and fragile quality. Meg Baird’s vocals are beautifully clean and affecting with a calm, haunting allure, and offset nicely by the sometimes appearance of backing vocals offered by main male presence Greg Weeks, who takes the lead on the album’s final track “Moon Occults The Sun”, which was also played, after “Children of Stone” and “Cruel Storm”. During the song’s developments the acoustic guitars hold a steady frame from which the other instruments leap off, the bass and cello often remaining fairly close and the percussion normally shifting everything in gear or adding effect but with Weeks either firing out high lead lines on a slightly distorted electric guitar — not overpowering or too loud but adding a more dramatic edge — or building up the texture with droning synth lines. The set ended with a rendition of Greenwich Village folk legend Michael Hurley’s “Blue Mountain” which appears on Esper’s US only release The Weed Tree. The track offers an acidic take on the Appalachian heritage, with gorgeous harmonised vocals here from Baird and Weeks and an awesome development, first taking in some recorder accompaniment before then descending into Velvet Underground-style droning string territory.

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