Friday, 2 December 2016

Emily Portman and the Coracle Band - MAC, Birmingham. Thursday 1st December 2016

Possessing a fertile imagination and engaging the musical side of her creative capacity has worked wonders for the career of Emily Portman. A voice beautifully formed to extol the mystique of her thoughts and observations has also played a significant part alongside working with a host of premium musicians and collaborators. Her latest venture is to harness the talents of the Coracle Band and undertake a series of full shows around the country in the run up to the holiday season. Birmingham’s premier eclectic arts venue – the MAC – was first up to host Emily and her band thus giving Midlands’ folks another opportunity to hear a range of songs primarily from her three studio albums.

Emily’s core inner circle comprises Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton, a pair of high class musicians with a lengthy association and also integral members of the traditional leaning side project, the Furrow Collective. To give the Coracle a fuller sound, the ladies are joined by established folk circuit fiddle player Sam Sweeney, the multi guitarist input from cross genre picker Matthew Boulter and the omnipresent percussion playing from an eleventh hour substitute for this tour following an accident to Emily’s husband. Together they brought to life the magic of a bunch of songs inspired by mystical fairy tales, the consuming delights of open space and some more pertinent events closer to home. A dark undercurrent flows through in a common theme calling at such subjects as infanticide and the sinister side of robins! Your imagination is frequently taken to obscure corners, yet always underpinned by the delightful soundtrack that the Coracle Band delivers.

The material spanning Emily’s two sets was almost equally lifted from the three studio albums. The middle of these is perhaps the one kindest to Emily so far in her career with the title track from HATCHLING being accredited with a best original song of the year at the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk awards in 2013. Sitting in a prime second row position in the MAC’s theatre allowed other tracks from this record to be succulently savoured such as encore number ‘Sunken Bells’, standout candidate ‘Hinge of the Year’ and the highly creative ‘Hollin’’. Emily’s ability to write a melody to traditional words in the latter highlights her studious approach to folk music and the strident goal of relaying the baton of the inter-generational song.

Bringing her music up to date with material from 2015’s CORACLE, she also extracted the title track among others like ‘Nightjar’, ‘Borrowed and Blue’ and ‘Seed Stitch’. Like so many songs on the evening, the stories accompanying them were rich and enlightening, thus marking a key difference between enjoying music in a live setting in the artist’s company and listening to the recorded copy. With this in mind we learned of Emily’s association with Lal Waterson and the origin of ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ which also proved one of the evening’s highlights.

Apart from the marvel of the entity, the musical peaks probably surfaced from segments of Rachel’s harp playing. This by no means disrespects Sam’s fiddle contribution, Lucy’s viola playing and multi-instrumental output via Emily’s concertina and banjo. Matthew Boulter’s part is an interesting addition especially when you consider his other work in a solo capacity and with bands operating on a different sound level. Whether on pedal steel or a variety of other stringed variations, his subtle sound blended perfectly with the mood of the show.

This opening show of the tour included the role of singer-songwriter Neil McSweeney in the support slot. He chose to share a number of new songs from an upcoming album release with some interesting subject inspirations being the source of compositions such as ‘Land of Cockaigne’, Strangers of Maresfield Gardens’ and ‘Atlantis’. Another preview song from this record in ‘Old Glory Blues’ was probably the pick of Neil’s half hour in the spotlight.

A final pinpointed moment when assessing the success of this show was the playing of ‘Stick Stock’ off Emily’s debut album THE GLAMOURING. This involved the sole combined voices of Emily, Lucy and Rachel, and a truly treasured moment. Throughout the gig we continued to be fascinated by the song contents and invitation given to free your mind of literal constraints. The whole presentation by Emily Portman and her Coracle Band was first class and a clear reminder to why folk music can be an enticing genre to enjoy the nuances of song generated music.

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