Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Vena Portae - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham Tuesday 26th August 2014

She may be a proud Australian but Emily Barker is now firmly established as one of the UK’s leading ambassadors of alt-folk, Americana and roots music. This ridiculously talented young lady has successfully turned her hand to a number of different projects and styles over the last few years with this new Vena Portae venture matching up favourably alongside her best. Emily would be the first to acknowledge the importance of the collaboration which has evolved into a recently released debut album and this hastily arranged short UK tour. A packed Kitchen Garden Café appeared to be at its most appreciative in turnout, attentiveness and after show mingling as this Anglo Swedish quartet served a near complete menu of the new record with a couple of extras thrown in.

Although Vena Portae officially market themselves as a trio comprising of Emily (vocals, guitars, banjo, harmonica), Dom Coyote (guitars, vocals) and Ruben Engzell (bass), the Swedish contingent has been doubled for these live dates with Jesper Jonsson adding the percussion spice. Despite self-admitted limited practise, the band had few problems transferring the excellent songs from studio to stage, or more precisely a cramped corner of the Café where the electric sockets are. These surroundings have brought the best out of many an artist and tonight was no different as friendly banter, informative inter-song chat and mighty fine musicianship brought the record, especially its Swedish origins, to life.

With a likelihood of the main act playing just over an hour, the promoters went to local artist Michael King of Boat to Row to open the evening and he duly entertained the audience while his own band were just around the corner recording some new songs. When Michael supported Blair Dunlop at the neighbouring Hare and Hounds venue in May, it was felt that the sound system didn’t do justice to his slightly lo-fi vocals but there was no such issue in the Café.

In a somewhat surprising twist, Vena Portae added a couple of new songs to their set suggesting that there is more to come from a group of artists so involved in other activities. To most of the audience, all the songs were new but to someone who has played the album countless times since its press issue, the unrecorded tunes were a significant style switch with ‘What We Do Matters’ adopting a more rockier feel and ‘No Enemies’ an acoustic duet featuring Emily and Dom. The other non-album song to feature acquired encore status and also added a further Swedish ingredient with ‘Young Folks’ being originally recorded by Peter Bjorn and John. The link between this and the new record is that Peter Moren was responsible for the remix of the lead single ‘Summer Kills’, one of the many songs contributing to the success of the evening.

Apart from the prominent and aforementioned flagship track, the two standout songs were the fabulous ‘Flames and Fury’ and the Christian Kjellvander (more Swedish connections) penned ‘Transatlantic’. Both songs were introduced with background stories and we were duly informed about the effect of Emily’s bourbon intake on the spirited first track and the location of the writing for Christian’s song, the only album track not to feature the writing input of Emily, Reuben or Dom. The other tracks to infiltrate the set from the record were ‘Foal’, ‘Turning Key’, ‘Stingrays’, ‘All Will Be Well’, ‘The Mapless Sea’ and show opener ‘Before The Winter Came’. All were expertly executed with Ruben and Jesper holding them together on rhythm allowing Emily and Dom to share vocals, switch guitars and decorate some tracks with the classical Americana combo of banjo and harmonica.

Further insight reveals that Vena Portae have been bubbling under the surface for a number of years and it’s to the joy of the enlightened music public that a release and tour has emerged. With her prominence elsewhere, Emily is going to attract the attention but essentially Vena Portae is a carefully crafted ensemble of fine musicians and few in the Kitchen Garden Café would argue as to the quality of their show. 

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