Photograph by Sonny Malhotra from The Brixton Windmill, 2011.
FIRST PUBLISHED ON 12 NOVEMBER 2012 IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT
Much like the cup with the cracked handle in his denigration of “terrible town planning” ‘Love in the Time of Ecstasy’, the appeal of opening act Withered Hand – aka Dan Willson – is in his imperfections. And so it plays out in front of a slowly swelling, partisan crowd in the gorgeous Islington Assembly Hall tonight. The parts – his beaten up guitar, gently cracking voice and slightly incoherent preambles – all add to a captivating sum in this stripped back acoustic warm-up.
He’s joined initially by Malcolm Benzie (Woodpigeon) on mandolin, with Rob St John adding harmonium to the ranks for the second half. The opening flurry of new tracks is soothingly pleasant: both ‘Love Over Desire’ and ‘Anyone’s Guess’ suggest a more countrified Withered Hand than we’ve yet been witness to. Things really take off when the trio (with Benzie swapping his mandolin for a fiddle) tackle some of the standout tracks from Willson’s debut, Good News.
In contrast, Rob St John, accompanied by a veritable who’s who of Edinburgh’s music scene, couldn’t be starker. Last year’s Weald was measured, fragile and, outside a few circles, criminally overlooked. The deliberation is apparent on stage too, even if the songs take on a whole new vibrancy with the backing of a full band. Every note, distortion and lunge of his baritone Lancastrian voice, seems to be in its right place. A searing guitar solo on the tail-end of the excellent ‘Sargasso Sea’ silences even the most persistent chatterers at the back. St John saves the most poignant moment for last. A rousing, heartfelt version of the ever-emotional ‘Shallow Brown’ dedicated to a recently passed friend steals the show.
Depending at which stage of Meursault’s career you’ve caught them live, you could have been greeted by anywhere between one and 20 members. Tonight’s cast comes in at 11, including all the evening’s previous performers (bar Withered Hand) and the Pumpkin Seeds string section. Given the grandiosity of the occasion, it seems lazy – almost clichéd – to start with the same point that every other review of Meursault has ever started out with. But, y’know, it’s kind of unavoidable.
Even among the maelstrom of strings, guitar, keys, harmonium and Neil Pennycook’s voice rises with towering bellicosity. Meursault are a band known for their punishing touring schedule and it seems astonishing that he can summon the same stupefying volume and emotion from his larynx every time he opens his mouth.
The set lifts predominantly from this year’s stellar Something for the Weakened and as befits the occasion, the band is bang on form. The strings are, naturally, at their most effective during the quieter numbers – and it’s a shame that during the more rollicking numbers (of which there are many), they’re not higher in the mix. It’s a small gripe though. For there’s a real celebratory mood on show tonight, one that’s hard not to get caught up in. ‘Thumb’ is gently rousing. ‘Settling’ – one of the tracks of 2012 – is delivered with startling aplomb. The folky ‘Untitled’ is a welcome change of pace on record, and so it proves in the flesh.
‘Mamie’, a song about Pennycook’s grandmother, has the same impact as ‘Shallow Brown’ had for St John earlier in the evening. A sombre account of someone descending further into old age, it has the frontman hunkered down, mike in hand. He seems exhausted, spent and as Meursault leave the stage, there’s the sense that this song, that this entire show has been the culmination of something special. 2012 has been a fine year for Meursault and tonight, the band and their extended musical family revels in it.