Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo

Live Review | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Hedley Jones must’ve been scratching his head when he surveyed the proposed stage area at his little Wheelhouse tonight, before the arrival of the all-female four-piece acoustic collective, Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo. Being more than familiar with the venue already, I too had my concerns about how two bowed instruments and an expanding and contracting piano accordion would contend with the confined space.  Ah I thought, it’s Hedley Jones, he’ll manage it somehow, immediately discarding all my initial concerns.  Emily Barker, Jo Silverston, Anna Jenkins and Gill Sandell did eventually squeeze into that space after a small deal of stage adjustment and went on to play a couple of superb sets together before a packed sell-out Wheelhouse audience.  I would like to have said ‘standing room only’ but there wasn’t even anywhere else to stand.  With Jo on both cello and saw, Anna on violin, Emily on both standard and resonator guitar (and harmonica) and Gill on accordion and flute, the band played pretty much acoustically, with only the enhancement of Emily’s vocal and guitar, courtesy of a stripped down PA system.  The other instruments were loud enough to make an evenly balanced sound around the venue.  If anything, the beautiful harmony vocals provided by Jo, Anna and Gill, were slightly on the quiet side behind Emily’s enhanced voice, but it certainly didn’t spoil anything.  With Emily taking the lead on most songs, the mic was necessary to rise above the cello, fiddle and accordion.  Once you do hear the collective sound of these instruments in the hands of these four women, either acoustically or through a PA, it soon becomes apparent that The Red Clay Halo is a perfect vehicle for Emily’s songs.  Starting with “All Love Knows” from their current album Despite the Snow, the band soon relaxed into their stride with each of the musicians completely in tune with their instruments and their role within the band.  Jo Silverston’s cello is a familiar sound on the music scene and not just on the folk scene, but the music scene in general, most notably as part of the expanded Unthanks collective.  Her bow was equally at home on both cello and musical saw tonight, showcased particularly well on Emily’s “Bloated Blistered Aching Heart”, again from their current album.  For anyone acquainted with Kenneth Brannagh’s brooding unshaven and teary-eyed Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, as he roams the golden wheat fields of Ystad solving grisly murders, the sound of Emily Barker’s ethereal voice will be familiar, as heard over the opening titles to the BBC drama.  With a couple of subtle changes to the lyrics, “Nostalgia” returns to its original form during tonight’s performance, with ‘Melbourne’ and ‘Johnson Street’ taking their rightful place once again, instead of whatever Emily was required to sing for the telly.  As we patiently await the release of Emily’s new album Almanac, we we’re treated to a taster of what’s to come with a performance of the band’s new single download, available at the Wheelhouse tonight as a postcard, each one containing the download code.  “Little Deaths” has all the retro feel of late Sixties Brit-folk, Bert Jansch and Pentangle and the like, as opposed to the band’s familiar leaning towards Americana in songs such as “Blackbird”, “Fields of June” and “Disappear”.  With the imminent release of Gill Sandell’s own debut solo album Tarry Awhile, Emily swapped places in order for the sweet-voiced singer to perform one of the numbers from the album, the John Douglas song “Wild Mountainside”, which had the Wheelhouse in complete silence throughout.  Emily also pays tribute to another songwriter and makes no bones about being a ‘huge fan of Neil Young’, turning in a pretty faithful version of “Look Out For My Love” from the Young’s Comes a Time period.  Jo and Anna were also given space to demonstrate their virtuosity on cello and violin respectively on the odd set of tunes incorporating that old favourite “Drowsy Maggie”.  Closing with a timely sing-a-long song, a fine interpretation of Mike Waterson’s “Bright Phoebus”, the band returned to the stage for a final encore, another set of foot-tapping tunes to send everyone on their way.  Once again, the Wheelhouse was treated to a top class band of top notch musicians with support courtesy of Sarah Horn and James Cudworth, two relatively new faces on the local folk scene and a duo to watch out for in the future.