Live Review | The Duchess, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson
With Halloween and Guy Fawkes night out of the way, we once again find ourselves pondering over exactly when the Festive Season actually begins. Towns and cities across the nation hire an assortment of b-list celebs to throw the switches at their costly light shows from around mid-November onwards, whilst the predictable TV adverts start sometime in July, a few months after our shopping lists began to be ticked off from around early January time. Let’s face it, Christmas is almost a year round event. Joking apart, I’m not entirely sure when the Christmas themed gigs should begin but I must say if they involve songwriters of the stature of Thea Gilmore, they could start in February for my money. With the release of her new seasonal album Strange Communion at the beginning of November, it was logical to get the current Wintertide tour off the ground as soon as possible in order to fit in all 23 dates before Christmas Eve. Refusing to use the ‘C’ word this early, the singer-songwriter insisted that the release is in fact a winter-themed album rather than a Christmas record specifically. After the show I asked the Oxford born songwriter whether a Christmas album was just a natural progression once the covers album Loft Music and the live album Recorded Delivery were now out of the way. “Oh I don’t know, I personally had to do a Christmas album just because I’m daft about Christmas. I haven’t got much competition, there’s only Bob Dylan who’s released one this year, so hey”. Curious to discover why Thea chose this specific period in her career to release a seasonal album I enquired whether motherhood might have had something to do with it and if so, to what extent her song writing might have changed with the responsibility of having a child. “I remember when I was pregnant, my friend who is also a singer-songwriter, Kathryn Williams, had just had a baby and she said to me the one thing about being a parent is that it doesn’t necessarily change you or your views on things but it makes you think that you were viewing the world in black and white before you had a child and then suddenly colour appears in your vision. It was a perfect way of putting it. I don’t think having Egan my son has changed the way I look at things very much but it has heightened everything and made everything much more intense and I’ve got a bit more clarity now”. Here is a songwriter who actually loves the Festive Season for herself and not just for the kids. Considering herself a cynical person eleven months of the year, Thea reserves the right to be ‘squishy’ in December and confesses that she makes a special effort to celebrate it and so why not celebrate it with a themed album and tour? “I love Christmas, I’m a real Christmas freak so it sort of made sense; I had a song that I really wanted to put on an album and so it just made sense to explore ideas and themes of winter and just enjoy my feelings about it as well”. The song in question was “Midwinter Toast”, which was inspired by a comment made by the radio presenter Janice Long who had said to Thea “I’m so fed up of playing the same old shit on the radio at this time of year; why doesn’t anyone write Christmas songs anymore?” Rising to the challenge, Thea went on to write “Midwinter Toast” but at the time, had nowhere really to put it, therefore it was never actually recorded. Tonight at the Duchess, as the stage lights dimmed in anticipation of the main part of the show, after an excellent opening set by Rod Clements (Lindisfarne, Jack the Lad), a recording of Scott Walker crooning a seasonal “Winter Night” segued into some atmosphere-setting jingle bells music as the tall slim figure of Thea Gilmore emerged from the back of the stage. Standing still before the audience, waiting for the last note of the ‘twinkles’ to fade out, Thea Gilmore greeted her audience with a distinctly chirpy “hello”. Starting with her own version of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling”, Thea and her band, which consisted of husband Nigel Stonier on guitar, Rod Clements also on guitar and ‘mistress of the four strings’ Fluff on fiddle and tenor guitar, played a seasonal set made up of songs from the new album, with one or two familiar things thrown in for good measure. The opening song from the new album “Sol Invictus”, features the Liverpool-based choir Sense of Sound, who recently re-joined Thea once again, this time on stage at a concert in Birkenhead. “It’s actually very difficult singing in front of a choir, leading a choir, not least because there were 20 of them on stage with me and I’m trying to make sure that they all know what I’m doing and when I’m doing it but more than that, it’s an incredibly emotional thing to be part of such a huge group of human voices; to be in the middle and in front of them all and I find it really difficult not to cry when I hear this. The venue is a very echoey venue anyway and it’s almost church-like and so it’s just incredible and you get this massive wave of emotion coming over you”. Tonight, Thea sang the hymn-like song unaccompanied, which in a way, was just as haunting as the recorded version. The two non-original songs on the album were very carefully considered. “Originally when I thought about making a seasonal album I thought it was going to be half covers and half originals but the originals kept coming. I started writing them in May and I just didn’t stop really and so it came a much more original album than I thought it was going to be. The two songs (Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling” and Elvis Costello’s “St Stephen’s Day Murders”) I couldn’t leave off. “St Stephen’s Day Murders” is such a rollicking good laugh and it illustrates a family Christmas so beautifully”. I suggested that the song bore similarities to “Fairytale of New York”, which Thea was only too willing to concur. “I think we accentuated that by having a male voice on it as well, we’re doing it as a duet and it just works like that, it’s just fun”. “The other voice on the song is radio presenter Mark Radcliffe who is known for his appreciation of all things Pogues. The reason that came about actually does have a connection to “Fairytale of New York” because a couple of years ago he (Radcliffe) asked me to be Kirsty MacColl to his Shane McGowan. He’s got a band and he was doing a gig around Christmas and so I went and did that and we laughed all the way through it, it was just hilarious. When I heard “St Stephen’s Day Murders” and knew I wanted to do it, I thought it would be great as a duet. He was the first person I thought of and I was very lucky that he said yes”. The single from the album “That’ll Be Christmas”, is as infectious as any classic Christmas song we all know and love and I suggested with lines like ‘Hot wine and a Christmas tree, the Sound of Music and the family, faith, hope and gluttony, that’ll be Christmas’, it’s just everyone’s idea of Christmas these days”. “It really is; Nigel is a much more positive person than I am, I’m very definitely the pessimist in this relationship. He put all the nice positive bits in and I was the faith, hope and gluttony girl”. There were a few exceptions to the seasonal theme of tonight’s concert with a few well-chosen songs from Thea’s back catalogue, “Old Soul” and “Wrong Side” from her Liejacker album, “Mainstream” from Avalanche and “Saviours and All” from Thea’s so called ‘breakthrough’ album Rules for Jokers. Audience participation was called for in “Oh Come On” encouraging her audience to join in on the contagious refrain by suggesting that Gordon Brown should win the next election ‘oh come on!’ or the fact that Simon Cowell has made a major contribution to music ‘OH COME ON!’ etc. The participation obviously grew more enthusiastic as the suggestions got more bizarre. For the encore, Fluff paraded a makeshift dartboard amongst the audience inviting someone to throw a magnetic dart at it. The board was divided into ten sections, each containing the title of a ‘cheesy’ Christmas song, which Thea promised to sing. Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” was the chosen ditty thanks to York’s chosen Bullseye contestant in the audience. Christmas is about children, it always has been and it always will be. As the last of the remaining audience left the building, and as Thea and the band packed away their bits and bobs ready for another long drive through the night, little Egan ran around the dance area, which had just been cleared of chairs. “Sorry about the noise” Thea laughed as her son ran around, presumably having slept through mum’s set. “I considered myself to be totally un-maternal and not interested in kids at all and it’s no secret that Egan was a very happy happy surprise and I expected myself to feel hemmed in and locked down but in fact the opposite happened, Egan has just opened my eyes to so much and has just made my life so much richer”. Thea Gilmore hopes that Strange Communion will be re-visited at this time of year for some time to come and I for one will probably do just that. It’s just sometimes nice to hang up ones cynical cap, if only for a couple of weeks in December.