Nick Talbot’s band Gravenhurst played at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter on Saturday as part of a triple bill alongside Ed Wood Jr and Mary Epworth. Ed Wood Jr, a French drums and guitar/keyboards duo, kicked off proceedings in fiery style. Sharing nothing of their namesake’s shambolic amateurism, but something of his tendency to mix together wildly incongruous elements to form a weirdly compelling fusion, they produced a complex and extremely disciplined noise of a kaleidoscopic, ever-shifting nature. Sounding a little like Battles at times, particularly in the opening number, with its pounding glam drum pulse, they negotiated knotty time-signatures and lightning rococo riffs with effortless ease. There was an element of nonchalant prog virtuosity in the way the guitarist hammered on melodic runs whilst simultaneously playing keyboard lines with his right hand. All that was missing was a modern indie variant on the Rick Wakeman glittering cape to provide a suitably superheroic costume. The drummer played with agility and military marching band precision, and the unison passages between the musicians were a thrilling conjunction of melodic bursts and rolling rhythmic cells. Though mostly an instrumental band, there was a smattering of vocals, mostly accompanying some pummelling hardcore guitar. I didn’t catch the lyrics, but the growling tone and aggressive intensity of the sound suggested that they probably weren’t about a pleasant picnic on a sunny summer’s afternoon. Effects pedals filled out the sound and left us at the end with a loop of a recorded voice blending with delayed guitar and keyboard noise fading to silence after the instruments had been laid down and the musicians bade us thankyou and goodnight.
Mary EpworthMary Epworth played in a duo with a drummer, alternating between a handsome hollow-bodied guitar and an electric autoharp, with tone control knobs and all. Her music encompassed a variety of styles, from a 70s style bluesy soul through country rock, early PJ Harvey style rock primitivism and raucous folk singalongs. Saddle Song was an infectious shanty style number, with swaying deckside rhythm and sturdy phase-swelled autoharp strumming. Other songs incorporated some fine close harmonising with the drummer, which brought to mind Gillian Welch’s singing with musical partner David Rawlings. Epworth’s guitar playing didn’t extend beyond providing full downstruck chords, but combined with the powerful drumming, this gave the music an uncluttered, driving forcefulness. At the centre of everything, however, was the deep and rich resonance of her voice, which has a classically soulful quality without ever resorting to showy dynamics. A fine instrument used with taste and restraint. She let us know about her weekend activities in between songs in what she said was like a mini-holiday. Going to see owls and eagles at a bird sanctuary (she is obsessed by wildlife, she said, as her songs Black Doe testifies), eating a quality scotch egg, and, the day after the concert, going to see a theatrical adaptation of a M.R.James ghost story. I must say, it sounds like a fine time. She ended by putting down her instruments and handing her guitar to the drummer, who climbed out from behind his kit. She then sang a gospel-tinged song, accompanied by a guitar treated to provide additional church organ organ shades. A fine piece of testifying with which to conclude.
Nick TalbotGravenhurst turned out to be Nick Talbot doing a solo act. I must confess to being a little disappointed by this turn of events, since there was nothing to indicate this whittled down incarnation in the publicity leaflets and posters for the evening. Yes, I could have checked the Gravenhurst website, but for me they are a band, with all the different timbres and dynamics which a band brings to the material at hand. The worldview of Talbot’s music is nothing if not downbeat, focussing on isolation, emotional numbness, mental illness, urban angst, romantic betrayal (‘black romance’ as he sang on Nicole), political repression and simmering violence. Bleak is his favourite colour. The subjects of his songs stand on the brink of an empty grave, gazing into the beckoning void and contemplating whether to allow themselves to fall in. With Talbot standing alone in the spotlight playing unadorned guitar (acoustic first, hollow-bodied electric later), the bleakness dials were turned up to maximum. The songs sounded here like they were in delicate demo form, rough sketches waiting to be inked in and coloured. They seldom stray from the minor key, although subtle and unexpected harmonic turns often feature, hinting at shifts in the quality of light, if not quite a sudden shaft of illuminating light breaking through the overcast skies. There were none of the additional textures provided by synthesisers and electronics on the albums, no hidden fx pedals, compact synths or samplers; nor was there any of the exhilarating energy of the louder rock numbers. There was certainly nothing of the magisterial arrangement found on The Prize on the new LP The Ghost in Daylight, which boasts strings by the marvellously named Algernon Blackwood Memorial Ensemble. Perhaps wisely, The Prize was left off the set list, which was a shame, however, since it’s a great song, one of the best Gravenhurst have ever recorded. There was a risk that such relentlessly bleak and minor key material might prove wearying in such austerely unadorned settings. Or that the absence of any leavening humour might result in a response of perverse hilarity, a kind of heroically positive resistance to such cumulative doomsaying. The lack of tonal variety, which might have made for a more pleasurable sort of melancholia, a depressive music which you could move to, Joy Division style, instead made for a difficult listening experience requiring a concentrated stillness. Talbot’s rather diffident stage manner didn’t help, with a fair amount of fiddly fine-tuning between songs providing mood-breaking silences. Perhaps a little end of tour weariness had crept in (this was the final date), but you sensed that he wasn’t one for accommodating an audience, adopting an ascetic, anti-entertainment take-it-or-leave it stance. A dismissively contemptuous response to a song request (to be fair, he’d already played) certainly suggested that he had no truck with traditional niceties. In the end, the performance probably went on for an optimum amount of time (just under an hour). It was about as much as the spirit could take before beginning to wilt. But for the time he was on stage, Talbot played with rapt intensity, and the extra attention required was well rewarded.
The solo nature of the show drew attention to Talbot’s accomplished folk fingerpicking style, and the strong element of traditional folk which underpins his music. Richard Thompson would seem to be an influence (his Fairport song Farewell, Farewell was covered on the Gravenhurst album The Western Lands), with Richard and Linda songs like End of the Rainbow and The Great Valerio setting the pattern for stark, unrelenting, clear-eyed pessimism and poetic allusiveness, as well as an underlying compassion for the human condition at its most desperate. When asked to pick songs for a Guardian podcast, Talbot chose Thompson’s Has He Got A Friend For Me, along with Sandy Denny singing Reynardine, and Broadcast’s Black Cat, the latter two by some of my absolute favourites, which naturally suggests that I’d have an affinity with his music. I love the Thompson of Fairport and the 70s albums with Linda Thompson too. The Lou Reed of Berlin would also seem to be a point of reference, the song Damage II (played tonight) beginning with the line ‘Emily said’; an homage, perhaps. The set began with I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor from the 2003 LP Flashlight Seasons, a more or less solo effort. He naturally drew more from the quieter, more austere side of his output, and there were a couple more songs from Flashlight Seasons, Bluebeard and Damage II, both dealing in a more or less direct way with mental disintegration. A memorable line in the latter, talking about ‘climbing the stairs in the dark’ points to the sepulchral gothic ambience of much of the music. This quality comes through even more on record, with the shadows of organ drones and whispering electronics added, but is still present here in songs like Cities Beneath the Sea, with its hauntingly beautiful imagery of buried or submerged worlds from which ‘the dead see through the eyes of the living’. The memorial strings on The Ghost in Daylight suggest that Algernon Blackwood is an inspiration, but Cities Beneath the Sea and others of Talbot’s city songs are perhaps also a reflection of his reading of Iain Sinclair, whom he mentions in an interview in The Quietus. The influences on his songwriting come from literary sources musical as much as, or perhaps even more than, musical ones. The Western Lands, the title of his 2007 LP, may be a mythologizing allusion to his westcountry homeland (he lives in Bristol), or it may be a nod to William Burroughs and his late novel of that name. Or indeed both at once.
Grand Union Canal was ‘another song about urban angst’, as he announced with apologetic self-deprecation, a sketch (in heavily cross-hatched charcoal) of the city as maze in which the protagonist has ‘walked every street’ but ‘can’t find a way out’, retreating to his cell of a room. Several songs deal with the insidious attraction of violence, a perennial theme for Talbot. He indirectly acknowledges its dangerous allure, whilst never offering prurient descriptions, but also shows a moral repugnance at its casual expression and use in personal or political control and subjugation. As he bluntly puts it in I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor (possibly in response to the endless gangster ‘comedies’ being churned out in post-millenial Britain), ‘the East End rogue you so admire is a murdering fuckhead’. The almost biblical image of casting stones (a metaphor for personal culpability for violent acts and their outcomes) recurs in I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor (something of an ur-song for Talbot) and Black Holes in the Sand (from the similarly titled 2004 mini-album, which I handily found in Oxfam the other week), voiced in the latter as a tongue-tripping cause and effect chorus confessing ‘held the hand that threw the stone that killed the bird that woke the city’. Thankfully, he didn’t sing any of the songs he has written about serial killers, the one aspect of his work which I unequivocally dislike, adding as it does to the tawdry modern tendency to mythologise and lend a repugnant ubermensch aura to such pathetic sociopaths. The sense of a deep and easily tapped aquifer of violence in the human soul (and perhaps particularly in the soul of men) is conveyed all the more chillingly through being sung in Talbot’s hushed and softly mellifluous tones. It’s a voice which seems to express an abiding sadness at the fallen state of the world, and at the shrunken souls of the wretched which it dissects. It will probably never attempt a happy song, but the sad songs it sang on this evening, crafted in such carefully chosen words, cast their own simple and unadorned spell.