Secret Sofar Sounds Newcastle show – 15th September 2014

By on Friday, 19th September 2014 at 2:00 pm
 

In a student-heavy front room in a student-heavy part of town, only the sixth Newcastle Sofar Sounds kicks off. As regular TGTF readers will know, the idea of Sofar is to bring live music literally into people’s front rooms. In some parts of the world, the events are wildly oversubscribed, making a pass-in one of the hottest tickets in town. Newcastle has yet to reach such giddy heights of success, but it’s not for the want of quality acts. Acoustic troubadour and medical student Matt Hunsley hosts, his housemates and fellow students make up most of the crowd, and TGTF was there to record proceedings.

Suntrapp, aka Jake Houlsby, is that rarest of things: a professional musician. That is to say, he earns his living through playing music. Most acts one might read about in these pages are amateurs: they work other jobs in order to finance their music making. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that; the amateur artist has the freedom to work within any discipline and any style, regardless of its commercial appeal. Professionals, however, prostrate themselves before the altar of money, making or playing whatever their customer demands. Thankfully, tonight Houlsby the pro is appearing as his alter-ego Suntrapp, so we are spared the ‘Your Song’ cover. What we are treated to is a close-quarters set of his songs so far: the pretty ‘New Morning’ is a delicately-picked ditty showcasing Houlsby’s plaintive vocal style; more memorable still is the set-closing instrumental piece: a flamenco-inspired loop overlaid with some lovely mariachi flourishes, which apparently sounds great in a church.

What becomes apparent as Suntrapp’s set progresses is how reverent the audience are tonight. One could literally hear a pin drop. Given the recent complaints about the rudeness and ignorance of modern audiences – speaking loudly during quiet bits and being obsessed with selfieing themselves in front of the band – the atmosphere tonight comes as a refreshing and deeply welcome change. If anything, this is the biggest attraction of Sofar: because this is an invited audience, everyone is here to listen to the music rather than have their own little narcissistic party.

Brooke Bentham is even more sparse of guitar, but wonderful of voice. She ranges between dusky low pitch and delicate falsetto. ‘We’ll Be Ghosts’ is stunning in its minimal presentation; she really lets her spectacular voice rip towards the end of the song and it’s a thing of beauty. There’s a song about Oscar Wilde, which hints at literary pretension, and gives a depth to the songwriting that does justice to the presentation. Apparently she’s moving to London soon to study at Goldsmiths, where she will no doubt go onto huge things indeed.

And who is this headlining? Surely not Bridie Jackson and the Arbour, the Glastonbury-competition-winning folk four-piece? Yes it is, and they sound utterly wonderful. There’s Bridie with her guitar, there’s a cello, a fiddle (not violin, as I am corrected later), and a percussionist sat on a cajon and wielding some lovely obscure noise-making artefacts. ‘Crying Beast’ – apparently written about a tiny monster who enters a house via the letterbox and feeds upon the negative energy within until it takes up a whole room – treads a delicate path between light and dark; ethereal beauty and hints of discord live uneasily together, resolved by the final coda of “I’m shrinking as you grow”.

Tonight’s presentation suits such material perfectly – the pristine, note-perfect three-part harmonies are a wonder to behold at such close quarters; the bowed instruments are plucked in unconventional ways to variously mimic lead parts or give the impact of a bass guitar. In their mastery of traditional arrangements, twisted into thoroughly modernist songwriting, Bridie Jackson and the Arbour share much with fellow northeasteners The Unthanks, which is high praise indeed. They’ve got a new album out in ‘New Skin’, and are just about to embark on a tour of suitably unconventional venues across the country, notably the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead, attendance at which comes highly recommended.

Out of everything that went right tonight, only the venue leaves a little to be desired. Yes, it’s in a secluded corner of a leafy part of town, but a quick tidy up and brush of the feather duster wouldn’t go amiss, particularly in the bathroom. And how much does a bag of tea lights cost these days? A few throws and a bit of atmospheric candle-lighting would make things feel that bit more special from a visual point of view. To be fair, this is a student house, so on that scale it’s a palace; still, a variety of venue might make the Sofar offer even more compelling.

But that’s picking nits, frankly. Sofar offers an unmatched opportunity to see acts “in the raw” as it were, stripped of anything as vulgar as amplification. Vocals and instrumentation are as naked as their maker intended, which means they carry a tonal, and therefore emotional, impact rarely found at a live performance. Tonight is quite the most intimate and respectful night of music one could ever have the good fortune to encounter. Bring on next month.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF was edited by Mary Chang, based in Washington, DC.

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