Chalk Drawings live with Ellis Gallagher
In an interesting coincidence, it is a year & a week since I reviewed the album ‘Grand Union' by Chalk Drawings in ‘Hot Music Live'. Last night I had the pleasure of catching up with them again at the Magic Lantern & although they played several songs from that great album, things had moved on in that time. (If you haven't yet downloaded their track "Rag & Bone", which is on ‘Grand Union' from "Hot Music Live Presents Vol 1", for which we thank them, you can from here, for free: https://hotmusiclivepresents.bandcamp.com/track/rag-and-bone)
Firstly, a year or so ago, a Chalk Drawings gig (unless it was one of their collaborations with Blind Faith), tended to feature a three piece line up: Simon Dagger (vocals & guitar) Rob Lewis (bass) and Kev Stanley (drums) with the occasional live performance by their associate keyboards player Russ Tovey (who plays on the album). Last night we had a five member band with not only Russ playing the vintage Magic Lantern Dale Forty piano (which added all sorts of extra textures to both originals & covers) but new additional guitarist Dan Holford who has joined the band, allowing him & Simon to alternate lead guitar parts & liberate the latter from having to play lead & rhythm on top of singing.
The next thing to mention was that Chalk Drawings had invited Ellis Gallagher to support them. I really raise my hat to them for this: Ellis is, I believe, only seventeen & to be given the chance to play with such a great band in a venue where every audience member was both fully attentive & fully supportive is something they deserve credit for: it's input like this which really helps younger musicians develop & find their own voices rather than struggling for live opportunities & being pressured into trying to sound like established stars. I am in little doubt that the band are right: Ellis possesses much potential & you can tell that he has interesting and unique preferred singing & playing styles which will help shape original material: not surprisingly, his set last night reflects the stage of his development being founded on covers. His voice and guitar style are certainly his own: they reminded me of interesting artists I have long liked (I wonder if he has listened to them?), with a stark & insistent strumming set in a very trebly tone: I thought of various Velvet Underground songs but also those VU influenced bands which emerged during the "post punk" era: often on Scotland's Postcard Records but it did directly remind me of the playing of Tracey Thorn when, pre-Everything But The Girl, she was the Marine Girls' guitarist. Last night, extra support was given as Ellis was backed (he usually plays solo) by Simon on bass & Kev on drums, complementing & enhancing his playing rather than imposing their own styles.
Another novelty in the Chalk Drawings own set was of course new material: they played several new songs, like all of their material rather difficult to pin down in terms of genre but all effective & all of which went down well with the audience. I understand that release of several of these tracks is planned for 2019: like so many of the acts I like, they are going for a single or EP rather than an album: since Simon tells me that the songs aren't part of an overall narrative like ‘Grand Union', there is no need for them to be grouped like that record.
The five members blend together beautifully: there are two very key dynamics going on. Firstly, they obviously greatly enjoy playing together & this is obvious from watching them & grants their music that edge of integrity & joy above even their considerable musicianship: and that itself is superb and impacts on the audience's reaction. Secondly, they clearly work hard at making their often complex songs seem effortless. They had a looseness born of the joy I mentioned but a tightness from presumably much practice. The gig began at eight. The band arrived around two o'clock to really get the sound perfect. They succeeded & this tells you a lot about them.
At this point, I think I'll take a break from attempting to describe them myself & share the direct words of Kev with whom I was discussing the various aspects mentioned above
"We try to not over power each other musically too. Letting each other have room to breathe.. It's like baking a cake. Put the right amount of ingredients into the mix, & it is a grand result, but too much of something can ruin everything..... None of us have egos whatsoever...."
Which says more than I ever could.
For those of you never to have witnessed a Chalk Drawings gig, I suggest that you do: check out their web page for several imminent dates. Like their album, their live set incorporates the many styles they are adept at & this makes for well paced sets & attention keeping variety. Russ on the old piano helped bring their traditional music hall side to life & they encompassed ballads, rock etc but deep down, I suspect they have a particular love of funk as they are so good at it & put the funk into so many songs as either the major element or part of a contrasting passage. Oh & they encored with a version of "Town Called Malice' which was a damned good end to a great night in my opinion.
Chalk Drawings at the Town House
I hope anyone reading this remembers my April 6th review of Chalk Drawings' current (concept) album 'Grand Union'? Perhaps that's a bit presumptuous of me, but I was very enthusiastic about it. I look forward very much to hearing it in its entirety live.
I was fortunate enough to hear a couple of tracks from it last night when the band played the Town House, and they were the highlight for me personally: very powerful, compelling and moving songs.
However, the nature of the gig was that the set contained a higher proportion of cover versions, which is fair enough when played to this standard especially, and although I wasn't counting, I don't think that the covers outnumbered the originals, which I applaud. In fact another cardinal rule of the "originals band play a covers set" was broken by the number of brand new originals aired: all of which seemed to go down well generally. I do think that a healthy music scene while having space for the best covers bands (and we are blessed with some superb ones locally) should also provide as many opportunities for audiences to hear the excellent original material being created.
Another facet of Chalk Drawings' set which I again commend was that the majority of covers fell outside the range of the over familiar: those chose imaginatively, and while arrangements weren't avant garde, nor did they slavishly stick to facsimiles of the originals: each had its own bespoke approach.
Generally, the set probably represented the band at its most funky & r'n'b It was pretty high energy, without dipping into the ballad end of the repertoire which also greatly appeals to me.
The crowd enjoyed the whole set & I personally was delighted that there was a distinct "Alternative Sounds" feel: not only have Chalk Drawings kindly agreed to let the project add one of their songs to a future volume showcasing "the cream of Coventry & Warwickshire music, past, present & future" but in the audience were Taylor-Louise and Faith from Blind Faith, both of whom have also done so. We look forward to being able to share the work of all three superb acts both on an album and hopefully live and it was nice to update them all with our plans & thank them for their support.
"Grand Union" by Chalk Drawings
Years ago, I am not sure I could imagine myself reviewing a concept album. I guess the concept of a concept album has been around a long time (presumably "A Love Supreme" must be one) and of course when pop music evolved into rock then bands looking for the next step "forward" produced some great ones. It was the subsequent descent into pomposity & pretension that rather sullied the expression for many people though: myself included.
However in recent years, Coventry & Warwickshire can hold its head up high in terms of some excellent concept albums: even if that's not always the terms the artists themselves use: sets like "Millions of the Mouthless Dead" & "All Mine Enemy's Whispers" by ATTRITION, "12 Songs" by Two Giraffes & Kel Elliott & Her Three Man Orchestra's album of songs around Chedham's Yard in Wellesbourne are superb examples of suites of songs around a theme & I defy anyone to criticise them in my hearing.
The latest in this respect is Chalk Drawings' album "Grand Union": a narrative set of songs released just before Christmas, telling the story of two individuals & their relationship. The album title works on several levels: there is a title song but in the song "Exquisite Night", reference is made to a bar in Leamington of that name (which did in recent years actually exist, it was a good music venue too but no longer exists under that name: it's now Apehangers under Procaffeinate) which of course in turn takes its name from the famous canal, yet I imagine the main reference in the title is to that of the bond between central couple.
The band consists of Simon Dagger (vocals & guitar) Rob Lewis (bass) and Kev Stanley (drums) with associate keyboards player Russ Tovey and "Grand Union" was mixed by Nick Mew at Chicken Shed Records
In a tale wending its way from 1939 to 1975, the narrative arc encompasses war, love, ecstasy, separation, reunion, marriage, parenthood, loss & redemption in ten songs plus a partial reprise of the title song.
Obviously within this, the story ebbs & flows with finer detail which is impressive. It's a sort of musical version of Proust or "Dance to the Music of Time" I suppose, albeit on a more intimate scale: indeed like the latter, the imagery of a turning wheel (of life) is central.. That scale seems to determine the musical setting which is appropriate to such a narrative. The instrumental arrangement is tasteful, subdued & is more of a setting to the lyrics than overwhelming them (and overblown arrangements were part of what gave the "concept album" a bad name in the 1970s: that & pretentious lyrics, which these certainly aren't: instead they are elegiac & elegant with a sense of restraint: probably echoing the culture in which "Alfred" & "Millie" were supposed to have lived, when expressing emotions through the "less is more" approach). I can see why Chalk Drawings & Blind Faith enjoy working together as both seem to share a belief in avoiding over fussy arrangements & letting clarity prevail, with plenty of the space in songs which I prefer & which encourages dynamics to thrive. Since the quality of singing & playing is excellent on "Grand Union", there is no need for layering on extraneous embellishments & the material is all the better for this. Yes, the arrangements are discreet, but this firstly allows the variety of tone, which keeps the album interesting & engaging, to emerge simply through musicianship & not production & secondly is a better reflection of the story being told. In fact as the action shifts from fairground to POW camp, to dance hall to home to cemetery (with plenty of other stops along the way), the musical action shifts accordingly with folk, jazz, swing, soul, rock, blues & even music hall tinges.
At this point in a review, I expect normally to move into a look at standout tracks. However I find this quite difficult on this occasion: firstly because all the tracks sound equally good to me & secondly because I wonder if I should single individual tracks out from the wider context of a complete & unified set (I know Pink Floyd get upset about this sort of thing too). I am sure each one on "Grand Union" could stand on its own merits, but they do work well interacting as intended. That said, the band have produced a video for a single track, "Rag & Bone (you can view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nG1i6O0UgQ&feature=youtu.be). Also, I'm stuck with making some sort of a choice as Chalk Drawings have kindly allowed "Alternative Sounds" to use one of the tracks on a forthcoming volume of the cream of Coventry & Warwickshire music, past, present & future. Certainly "Rag & Bone" is a very catchy track: perhaps at the more upbeat end of the spectrum on the album, (along with "Ain't Nobody" in that respect) but then the title track is central to the album's whole being: in terms of narrative, imagery & also its emotional tone."Last Letter" and "Exquisite Night" offer the more heartrending end of the scale. But as I say: there is only one real way to get the most out of the record: play it all & play it in the right order. Then play it again as I did.