Before we start, a warning: this was some of the folkiest folk I have seen in quite some time. If that’s not your thing, you can exit early. Because when Alasdair Roberts and his hugely impressive band hit the tiny stage at The Talleyrand (one of Manchester’s most exciting new venues) they were to display a whole host of the tropes that you expect when attending a folk performance. That said, if you aren’t put off by this early caution, then there would’ve likely been a lot there for you to get a hold of. Because while this was a band seeped in the traditions of their genre, they were also doing something fascinating and unique and making the most of the space they were given.
First, though, let’s talk about the venue and the support act. The Talleyrand is a relatively new addition to the Manchester’s huge amount of music venues, and after seeing a play there last week this was my first visit for a gig. It’s a strange space for a show. With no backstage to speak of, the band have to make their way through to the crowd to get on stage and have nowhere to go to even pretend they’re not going to do an encore. But I don’t see this as a bad thing. In fact, at this show at least, it created a kind of intimacy that is rare at shows these days. This was particularly evident when support act, Birte Paulsen, was already standing on stage waiting to begin her set as we started to flood into the room. There was a kind of vulnerability as she stood there, clasping her guitar and watching to see how many people would step out from the bar and into the pub’s backroom.
That vulnerability would continue to be an effective part of her set, as she treated us to around six songs which she was happy to admit were more than a little sad sounding. Mournful, in fact. And again, that is not intended as a negative. When a solo singer with just a guitar and her voice can silence an entire room for half an hour, you have to see that as a good sign. The standouts from her set were probably ‘Notes on a Piano’ and her newest song ‘Achilles Heel.’
Even I, as a big fan on folk music, would have to admit that it took a little while for me to warm to Alasdair Roberts and his band. I attend a lot of gigs. But the majority are ones when I am already familiar with the artist and in this case, other than a cursory listen to the latest album The Fiery Margin, Roberts had completely passed me by. The set opened with the first song from the new album, ‘False Flesh.’ It is a slow and brooding track that puts Roberts’s voice at its centre. And when I said that they were band who embraced the folk traditions, Roberts’s voice was very much included in that assessment. He has one of those Marmite voices that will be offputting to some, but as the first song drifted into the second it began to settle on me and I decided I would happily have it on toast.
Roberts, as the frontman and songwriter, is the obvious choice for your attention in the early parts of the set. But what becomes increasingly obvious as we move through the performance is that it is his band that creates the unique and involving atmosphere that made this show so special in the end. That applies, more than anywhere else, to the drummer. At times it seems like he is playing along to a different song, at others his whooping and wailing seems like the cry of a madman, but what I came to realise is that his unusual and entertaining drumming style was what made these songs so lush and inviting. ‘Actors’ was one of the many songs when this was particularly evident and it stood out as one of the evening’s highlights.
The absolute standout, though, came as the evening was drawing to a close. ‘Unyoked Oxen Turn’ was a perfect demonstration of how important the whole band are to the performance, but also allowed Roberts to bring back some of the attention from the rest of the band. As the story of someone ‘looking for legs’ it has the typical folk focus on storytelling while also being witty and fun. It has lots of little twists and turns and was easily the most involving moment of the night.
So from a night that occasionally promised to be too folky even for me, the resident Picky Bastards’ folk fan, it eventually turned into a show that I didn’t want to end. There’s something so captivating about watching musicians try something slightly different with their instruments, whatever the genre. I could’ve watched that drummer all night.
Words and photos by Fran Slater