Spirit of John: The Basement, 22/2/13
If there’s one thing York does right, it’s folk. While many genres are lacking in anything that could conceivably be described as a “scene” in this fair city, you can barely move for acoustic instruments and confessional tales of love lost and found. Despite the ubiquity of this sort of event, venues like the Basement and the Black Swan are seldom left empty on acoustic nights. With this in mind, and having already listened to Spirit of John’s latest release ‘Snakes’, I headed down to the Basement (the cosy, candle-lit atmosphere complementing the intimacy of the venue) with high expectations.
The night was one of those rare occasions where any of the support acts could be sitting just as comfortably at the top of the bill, each act providing an assured, finely-crafted performance across a huge range of folk styles. Boss Caine’s opening set took us on a journey across the Atlantic, with Delta blues influenced finger-picked guitar and Deep South fiddle accompaniment provided by Kieran O’Malley, presided over by Caine’s Tom Waits-esque grumble. The transatlantic theme continued with the Buffalo Skinners, instantly recognisable from their tireless busking sets around the city, whose blend of 60s British pop and country & western was a genuine pleasure to witness. While not as musically intricate as the other acts, the five part harmonies, multi-instrumental talent and major key hoedowns couldn’t be faulted. Fans of The Band or Old Crow Medicine Show should get to one of their gigs immediately. Troy Faid’s penultimate set brought the tempo back down for some faultlessly intricate Nick Drake-style open tuned guitar work, providing plenty of entertainment for the guitar nerds in the audience.
The moment of calm provided by Troy Faid was immediately broken the moment Spirit of John took their places. As if in a constant battle with themselves to play each song more frantically than the last, this energetic Halifax duo took traditional folk and stabbed a shot of adrenaline through its heart. Taking rockabilly as a starting point and dragging each song through garage rock, punk and blues, the end result was a set comprised of some of the most exciting music I’ve seen for a while. Bassist Adam Richards told me earlier on in the night that their new material was a response to constantly being compared to Mumford & Sons, and while SOJ’s first album is certainly nothing approaching M&S’ inoffensive nu-folk, their latest release ‘Rats’ is poles apart, with a filthy DIY edge and sub-minute slices of raucous music. Sounding like a cross between the Tallest Man on Earth and Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns, frontman Joshua Sheard’s performance was at times vitriolic (“Witch”), at others, desperately wistful (“Tobias”). Kieran O’Malley returned to the stage for most of the set, and his sheer virtuosity was made even more apparent by the dramatic change in pace from his earlier set alongside Boss Caine. There was no shortage of talent among any of the three musicians on stage, who showed not only an extreme proficiency at their respective instruments, but a collective musical ear that meant that the songs were never overshadowed by the performers.