The Old Dance School

Live Review | The Grapes, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Huddled together tightly on the small stage at the Grapes tonight, was the seven members of Birmingham-based outfit The Old Dance School.  Led by the seated figure of Robin Beatty on guitar, the band consists of Helen Lancaster and Samantha Norman on violins, Laura Carter on woodwind, Aaron Diaz on trumpet and flugelhorn, Adam Jarvis on double bass and last but certainly not least, the brilliant Tom Chapman on cajon and cymbals.  In a relatively short period of time, this collective, all from the Birmingham Conservatoire, has managed to find its own unique sound, which at no point feels like a band going through the motions. Inventive, clever and completely cemented together musically, the seven piece mini-orchestra deliver the goods on time, in time and in perfect condition.  Pretty used to stages of all sizes, the band acknowledged the fact that The Grapes is a relatively small stage for such a big band, although Helen Lancaster informed me prior to the show that “we’ve played smaller”.  The small upstairs room of The Grapes in the heart of Sheffield city centre, actually added to the atmosphere tonight with every seat in the house taken, leaving only the small area in front of the stage for late comers to perch themselves upon the floor.  Tom Chapman jokingly referred to the place as a “wonderful, wonderful dive”, which was taken in the spirit it was intended.  Starting with “The Envelope” from the band’s current album Forecast, each musician in turn demonstrated the very thing that makes this band so special; the sheer dexterity of playing and cohesion between the seven disparate musicians, very much in evidence before the first number was through.  Add to this the joy of witnessing a band in a live setting, whose music had only previously been known through their recorded work, the secrets are revealed before our very eyes, such as Aaron Diaz’s atmospheric note-less trumpet effects at the start of “The Enlli Light”.  Who would’ve thought?  For a room completely packed with people, it was rewarding to hear a pin drop during the more delicate songs and tunes, Beatty’s gentle “Strange Highway” for instance or the sublime “Little Lewis”, written and performed beautifully by Helen Lancaster.  Tom Chapman’s cajon was one of the highlights of the overall performance, a key player in this band.  Creating tension, suspense and excitement, all at the same time, would not under normal circumstances be the responsibility of the drummer, but in the hands of Chapman, the cajon comes alive with dynamic sonic results.  Even the bank of lights hanging from the ceiling above the audience was also very much in tune with the band’s music, spookily coming on and off on cue throughout the performance, with seemingly no human intervention.  If you happen to be a fully paid up member of the folk music purist club, with an inherent aversion to the complexities of Jazz, Aaron Diaz’s trumpet interludes just might have you toddling off to the record shop to pick up some Chet Baker first thing in the morning; such is the appeal of this sort of playing in a folk music setting.  If Bellowhead blast out the brass as if it’s going out of fashion, then Diaz opts for the more mellow modal jazz that made Miles Davis a household name.  Robin Beatty couldn’t be more perfect as a front man in this outfit, with his distinctively fluid singing style and mature song writing credentials.  If “Strange Highway” demonstrates Robin’s command over melodic structure, then Sydney Carter’s “John Ball” and the traditional “Glenogie” further demonstrate an understanding of interpretation and arrangement.  After an encore of the “Convenience Set” (The Broken Pledge/The Wayward Son/Convenience Reel) the band left the stage and walked out into their audience, leaving by the back door to rapturous applause and calls for even more.  I certainly welcomed more; in fact, they could’ve played all night as far as I was concerned.  A real breath of fresh air and a band to watch out for during next years festival season.