Live Review: The Futureheads with the Cornshed Sisters at Gateshead Sage – 8th April 2012

By on Tuesday, 17th April 2012 at 2:00 pm

The Futureheads are in Gateshead to perform their latest superb opus, ‘Rant’. [Read Martin’s review of ‘Rant’ here.] It’s worth repeating, this is pretty much an entirely vocal album which spans performances of Futureheads songs rearranged for voices only, some unlikely covers, and a handful of traditional folk songs. This is the closest thing to a home performance of the freshly-minted album so far, although they will return to their actual hometown of Sunderland in a month or two for a couple of gigs. Nothing special, just one in Sunderland Minster (“a place of prayer, worship, God’s love, community action, friendship and much more”), and a place called the Stadium Of Light supporting a little-known band called Red Hot Chili Peppers. But tonight is all their own, in the neutral territory of Gateshead. But first of all there’s the little matter of the Cornshed Sisters

The Sisters are the perfect support act for this tour. Not only because both acts’ styles align perfectly tonight (of which more later), but for the more familial reason that Jennifer Brewis, her of the lovely soul voice stage right, is the better half of Field Music’s Peter, who is duly present in the audience tonight, along with Neil Bassett (Beast from Hyde and Beast, which features Dave Hyde, drummer of the ‘Heads, and singer Barry Hyde’s brother… are you paying attention at the back?). As if that’s not enough, there are several family members here to see what their offspring have been getting up to in the last year or so. Much like Field Music’s Cluny gig earlier in the year, it’s a proper celebration of what’s going so right with the music in this part of the world, with everyone turning out in support of their own.

Anyway, back to the Cornshed Sisters. This delightful all-female quartet have cornered the market in Americana-influenced folky ditties, with each taking turns at lead vocals, and the rest providing note-perfect harmonies. There’s a distinct vintage bent in the songwriting: ‘The Beekeeper’ is a perfect example, featuring as it does the sacrifice of a calf… then there’s the slightly disturbing comparison between a love affair and the Allied bombing campaign of a German city in ‘Dresden’. Overall, the sight of four dignified ladies purveying such singular material is surely more helpful to the ‘Girl Power’ meme – if such a pop-feminist movement exists or is even relevant now – than the ’90s girl bands ever were.

And then the Futureheads cometh. In the rack of guitars and drum kit hiding at the back of the stage, there are signs that this won’t be an entirely à capella gig, but just to prove their overall intent, the band choose to start with ‘Beeswing’. Surely the finest recording released this year, and a good reason for the Ivor Novello awards to open a new category of “Best recording of a previously released song” that there ever has been, this note-perfect rendition of the Richard Thompson classic sets the bar for the rest of the gig… which develops quite like a lost MTV “Unplugged” session. Debut album single ‘Decent Days and Nights’, and superb paean to the lost Busby Babes ‘News and Tributes’, are both rearranged for acoustic instruments which, if anything, seems to enhance their power; the songwriting is given room to breathe without the distracting noise of electrified instruments.

Lead singer and bandleader Barry Hyde is surely destined for a career in musical theatre if the Futureheads’ star wanes; his performance is just as much physical than vocal, and given the power and attitude contained within his voice that is quite a compliment. ‘The Old Dun Cow’ rollicks along with the audience joining in with choruses of “Macintyre!” and foot stamps; like a modern-day Fagin, Hyde exhorts his crew into a chorus of bawdy goodwill, his powerful storytelling manner finally giving vibrant life to a traditional song that has been murdered countless times by talentless YouTube karaoke merchants. The definitive version is finally made flesh.

As if this weren’t enough entertainment for one night, the Cornshed Sisters are invited back onstage to provide backing vocals to ‘Sumer Is Ecumen In’; suddenly the vocal palette is twice as deep. And as if that wasn’t enough, all of a sudden the stage is full of the tender-aged, angel-voiced throng that makes up the local Longbenton Community Choir; by some twist of fate Barry Hyde has conjured a whole orchestra of voices with which to climax the show. Their version of Sparks’ ‘The No. 1 Song in Heaven’ is utterly sublime; always a song with a spiritual theme, the young choir evoke a quite otherworldy backdrop worthy of the finest cathedral mass. Stunning.

It is difficult to imagine a finer gig; a band who have discovered a fine seam of form, collaborating with superbly talented musicians reimagining superb source material. Barry Hyde admits afterwards that the challenge of reducing 120 tracks of vocals to just four voices has been a challenge; a shaky version of ‘Meet Me Halfway’ aside, it’s one that has been met admirably. And he assures me that the appearance of a choir is not just a one-off – if by the time this review is published the Manchester and London gigs have passed, I have it on good authority that the Sunderland Minster performance promises to be quite special. On the evidence of tonight, there’s no way it could be anything other.

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