Ellie Gowers at Kenilworth Arts Festival
Strange and wonderful times: I find myself today writing my second live report inside a week. Though last evening was my first evening venture out in sixteen months, not only was the superlative quality of the occasion sufficient to steady my nerves, but I had another dose of déjà vu: if my previous review (Stone Bear) was of a band who'd played at my most recent inside gig, then who'd have guessed that the next one would feature an artist from my penultimate night out before lockdown? Am I revisiting last year's gigs in reverse?
At any rate, irrespective of strange patterns, I would have been delighted to restart indoors performances with such an artist as Ellie Gowers . However the context added extra levels of a sense of the special: not only did the gig mark the first event of Kenilworth Arts Festival 2021 (hats off to them for their efforts to salvage something of the year with a series of stand alone gigs like this followed by a cluster in September) but this evening was actually a date on a proper tour: the final (hometown) leg of her "Parting Breath" one, celebrating the EP of that name which we reviewed here in the magazine on March 5th.
You might expect the confluence of such a talent & the circumstances to create something of great quality & you'd be right. Playing in front of a responsibly socially distanced audience in this beautiful space, (Abbey Hill United Reformed Church in Kenilworth) Ellie was sublime. Sitting watching & listening to her, I was thinking on how I've tended to see her mostly in lower ceilinged spaces: given the space above her tonight, her remarkable voice soared and she adjusted her performance accordingly.
Whether the mood of the past months entered the occasion as well as the chance to make her environment an integral part of the sound, Ellie approached how she played somewhat differently to how I've seen her recently (if that adverb makes much sense given the time scales). She is adept at intimate performances and they certainly play to her strengths, yet even so, she has often varied her dynamics to include the unleashing of appropriate power at times. There was less of this on this occasion: Ellie really let silence play a part in most of the songs and even in her angrier songs such as "The Sky is on Fire", the over riding sense was more of sorrow and melancholy.
Much of her more recent (here we go again) material has tended to express distress over the stupidities of the modern world, whether ecological like the above mentioned song, social media ("Against the Tide") or the (as yet unreleased) anti-HS2 "Waking Up To Stone", all of which were played and all of which expressed the pity of the situation as much as her justified anger. This scepticism over the way the world is going was beautifully balanced with songs which reflect her lockdown era exploration of the past, whether it be via her own record collection (which led to a cover of Anne Briggs' version of "The Snow It Melts Soonest") or her projects engaging with local music and folklore (so we also had Pete Grassby's "The Last Warwickshire Miner" and an interesting adaptation of "Poor Old Horse" as collected by Cecil Sharp).
It is clear (and Ellie was engagingly frank onstage with admitting the lows, especially when lockdown first hit and her world of music largely taken from her) that she spent her time away from us profitably. Not only has she been working on the folklore project and others such as the Ondervinden "Folk Effect", but there have been several new songs created: several of which we heard. In fact, despite not having played more than a handful of gigs since I last saw her on February 29th 2020 (see the review of that night in the magazine on March 1st), her setlist had evolved significantly from that evening. As you might imagine, the "Parting Breath" four tracks all appeared as did fan favourites such as "For A While" and her customary a cappella set opener "The Falcon" by Richard & Mimi Farina. However many of the other songs were new to me & that surely is yet another sign of a progressive as well as talented artist. In fact she talked of the importance to her of getting recordings done for the EP during lockdown to capture songs she had had for a while, so she can move on. As a fan, you can tell how well a musician is doing in this respect when songs you love have to make way in a setlist, to make way for newer ones of equal of even greater stature.
As I say, this was an evolved Ellie from the previous occasion I'd seen her and how much the circumstances have shaped that or how much we saw signs of the next stage of her evolution, perhaps only time will tell. On a personal level, I have always appreciated (and often mentioned in reviews) her passion in her performance coming out in her dancing while playing, often stomping along as an outlet for her intensity. I noticed last night that her customary boots had given way to heeled shoes (a nod to the event and the venue or a sign of things to come?) which made this much harder, though I smiled to myself as from time to time she couldn't stop herself from this endearing and trademark trait.
I was extremely glad to get out & to enjoy such a classy evening: may it just be the start of many more. In the case of Ellie, I'm delighted that she is finally out again doing what she is so good at, and like so many others, I really hope she can pick right back up where she left off and reach the heights her talent & commitment deserve.
The ‘Parting Breath' EP by Ellie Gowers
One of the many frustrations of the past year has been the loss of momentum in the careers of various local artists who were so obviously on a roll: gigs stopped for them & the chance to record new material became very much more difficult. High on such a list would be Ellie Gowers whom I last saw play live on 29th February 2020: a typically sparkling & intense performance reported on in this magazine from an artist who was being very hotly tipped & cited by so many in the media & fellow musicians.
Some of my frustration was based upon the wonderful new songs she had had in her set over the previous months which everyone who heard them was looking forward to accessing on record later in 2020. That could not be, but very thankfully eventually Ellie has managed to get some recording done & so will be launching her new and greatly anticipated EP ‘Parting Breath' on 5th March: her first EP since 2018's ‘From Here on Out ‘ though please also check out her collaboration on "Arthur McBride" with Filkin's Drift in October 2020 as reported in the magazine.
As with so many other artists currently, the choice of format with four songs featured, acts to concentrate our attention on the sheer quality of each one when a conventional album collection might distract us more. With songs this powerful who needs quantity to prevail & in all honesty so profound & intense are Ellie's offerings that few of us probably possess the emotional capacity to process more than a quartet in one sitting.
For make no mistake, ‘Parting Breath' is an experience of profundity & intensity. Were it not for the fact that the songs were at least conceived if not fully composed pre-COVID19, one might ascribe these qualities to a sense of frustration on Ellie's part: though I would certainly credit that to her performance to some degree: it smoulders throughout.
The subject matter as well as the arrangements naturally give rise to the nature of the songs & generally one gets the impression that Ellie is looking hard at the world & finding aspects of it to be of concern.
‘Hot Music Live Presents' followers will know "Against The Tide" from 2019's Volume Two on which it appears and it was one of the tracks which drew the most comments & approbation received at HMLP HQ. It was also released as a single in the same year & we reviewed it saying "…"quite extraordinary" were the first two words I wrote down on the initial play. The song grabs you by the emotional throat instantly & you can tell that Ellie is holding nothing back on that front: a few moments at any of her concerts will have told you thought already though….to cut to the chase, "Against The Tide" is going to move you. Furthermore it exceeds even my expectations.". Reissued on this EP as Ellie felt it did not quite get the attention is deserved when first released, it was recorded at J&J studios in Bristol with TJ Allen, and features Joe Dean and Rob King on guitars, Conor Ross Harrington on drums, and Joe Johnson on bass. Speaking "of societal conventions and conditioning (and) looking at matters that are sometimes out of our control, it examines the push and the pull of trying to break these patterns" the song certainly confronts the issues concerned square on & I stand by the "quite extraordinary" tag eighteen or so months on. It also now has a video to accompany it (accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktE47xXwqpI) & filmed on Cannock Chase, which matches the music perfectly.
The other three tracks were recorded more recently in Stroud with Lukas Drinkwater and feature Alex Garden on strings, Lukas Drinkwater on bass, Seth Bye on accordion and Ellie's Mum Rosie Gowers on piano. Anyone who has witnessed an Ellie live performance (and if not I urge you to at the earliest opportunity) will testify to the unique presence she has on stage & the tremendous emotional clout she delivers entirely by herself, so you might wonder what all these additional players bring to the feast or worry that they might distract from Ellie's central performance. Well you need not fear: like fellow BIMM graduate Izzie Derry, Ellie is evolving her recorded sound & enhancing her tracks with additional nuances which help with emphasis & textures & which in no way affect the core qualities of the songs.
These have like the sound themselves evolved over the past few years. One song I expect to seize everyone's imagination is "The Sky Is On Fire" which regular Ellie watchers will have heard develop its lyrics as she worked hard to encapsulate a world she saw as going to rack & ruin before her eyes: ecological mayhem & terrorism all adding to what frankly is an apocalyptic track & is a stunning achievement, finally managing to channel her considerable anger into a cogent & needle sharp lament & warning. Earlier this month in my review of Luke Concannon's new album 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' I suggested, particularly in relation to his song "Coventry" which equated the Coventry Blitz to current disasters via the burning sky image, that it was interesting how both he & Ellie had lit upon the same comparison right now…. However like Luke, hope springs eternal in Ellie's heart and amidst the anger "The Sky Is On Fire" also offers us "…the notion that there is an urgent need for us to work together as a society to ensure the world is a better place for generations to come."
If these two songs share a common theme of frustration, then Ellie channels her passions in the other two along rather different channels: turning down the angsty setting to gentler levels.
The title song nods to both the traditional "Parting Glass" and to Robert Burns' "Auld Lang Syne" and while on an immediate level a celebration of family & friends getting together at New Year, its themes of beginnings, temporary farewells and sense of communal joys certainly speaks to our current situation & offers hope for reunions which at the time of writing have not yet come to pass. As you might guess, the sound is possibly the most traditional "folk" of the four & emphasises the delicacy & fragility which is as much part of her vocal range as is her power on the above two songs.
The last track to tell you about, "Eva", is the most overtly personal in the collection (though given the strength of feelings expressed in the others, one can hardly doubt their closeness to Ellie's heart: they are just expressed in more broad terms) and dates back to the sense of independence she experienced on leaving home to study in Bristol, yet even so, like its companions, harks to senses of separations being ended & bonds renewed. The atmosphere here is the most dreamy & contemplative on the EP and so contributes to offering us a range of emotional responses within the whole.
There is an extraordinary potency in Ellie's writing & performance (how fortunate is she to be equipped to give her passionate songs the delivery they merit) and this is yet another stunning addition to her canon of work. There is a clear progression in her writing as well as the development of fuller arrangements. She is certainly tipped as one of our local musicians most likely build a following across the country & beyond & this work definitely shows that this is becoming more & more credible: these songs have the clear potential to send metaphorical ripples across a large body of water.
To quote her lyrics "I wouldn't fight it, if I were you".
"Arthur McBride" by Filkin's Drift
For those of you who have been deprived of hearing the music of Ellie Gowers (I was fortunate enough to catch a live set on February 29th, but that seems an age ago now), the good news is that she has been working with folk duo Filkin's Drift who are Seth Bye on fiddle, accordion & vocals and Chris Roberts on guitar & vocals.
Ellie features as part of a vastly expanded lineup for a track on their new & eponymous EP, namely a version of the traditional anti-recruitment song "Arthur McBride". The rest of ‘Filkin's Ensemble' playing on the song (it's a live recording too) are Harry Thorpe (guitars), Lottie Price (violin), Emily Dore (viola), Flora McNicoll & Millicent B James (‘cellos), Daniel Newberry (tenor sax), Fraser Birchenall (baritone sax), Michelle Holloway (recorder), Katie Stevens (clarinet), Dan Cippico (bass) and Alexander Henshaw (percussion) .
Joseph Ockford was the sound engineer who captured what is a spectacularly affecting performance & one I thoroughly recommend
You can see a really good video of them playing at:
"Against The Tide" by Ellie Gowers
Some of the records I review for "Hot Music Live" come to me out of the relative blue. Others I am aware of & look forward to with great interest. A few such as today's release by Ellie Gowers of her single "Against The Tide" can be categorised as "eagerly anticipated".
Her first record since last year's ‘From Here On Out' EP, the interim wait has without doubt fuelled this feeling. As recent live reviews document, Ellie's artistic trajectory is currently rocketing. Mesmerising performances have attracted widespread applause & the buzz around the music scene is palpable: this is an artist on her way somewhere & increasingly fast. To quote ‘Love Shrewsbury': "‘One young woman made a big impression on us
this year. Ellie Gowers' exquisite voice and unique vocal style was absolutely mesmerising. She's one
to watch.'" I'd agree and so would so many others
For the record, apart from Ellie, the track features Joe Dean (guitar), Rob King (guitar), Conor Ross Harrington (drums) and Joe Johnson (bass) and was produced by Tim Allen at J & J Studios, Bristol
So what of the song itself: how does it sit with my expectations, sky high as they already were? Well "quite extraordinary" were the first two words I wrote down on the initial play. The song grabs you by the emotional throat instantly & you can tell that Ellie is holding nothing back on that front: a few moments at any of her concerts will have told you thought already though.
Something of another quantum jump forward in her creative process, this is wholly Ellie: yes you can detect the folk roots of her writing, a genre definition which has sufficed until now but one which will no longer confine her. This broods with an intensity that again no Ellie-watcher would be really surprised at & frankly must be best experienced with headphones or a very intimate space for a gig to get its full power.
The vibe owes as much to jazz as folk or maybe the work of similarly dark brooders of the P J Harvey, Nick Cave, Patti Smith ilk. With a far fuller palette of instrumental sounds at her disposal than on her previous releases, Ellie deploys them with the taste you'd expect: dropped in (often without warning) and then withdrawn as abruptly to keep you constantly on your toes & keeping you locked into the song.
Subtitled as "a conversation about societal conventions and conditioning.", it seems that the title probably refers to the big forces of fate & nature which shape our lives & are simply too strong to resist entirely and against which one must necessarily be prepared to contend if one wishes to stand up for ones beliefs in a bewildering & potentially hostile world. As much as a conversation, this song challenges us to think about things and come up with our own answers, however complex and nuanced they need to be & however difficult the process may be. Ellie shies away from nothing in this track & expects the same in return.
Although as I say, the song is in that sense metaphorical, I am interested in how three of our finest local writers, namely Ellie, Izzie Derry & Stylusboy have released absolutely superb maritime title songs in 2019 considering how landlocked Warwickshire is... (though I accept that Ellie & Izzie have coastal bases too). I wonder if this triptych carries some higher meaning? Or am I just easily confused?
At any rate, to cut to the chase, "Against The Tide" is going to move you. Furthermore it exceeds even my expectations. It's been a bumper year for superb Warwickshire & Coventry songwriting, among the best ever & even so, this record may well crop up on "best single of the year" type lists by those who feel like picking out individual tracks in this manner.
Buy the record & for goodness sake try to catch her equally impressive live performances. This is a performer on top of her game in so many ways yet promising to develop so much further in ways beyond my predictive powers.
Ellie Gowers & Henery live at the Magic Lantern
Last evening was one of local music's most anticipated gigs of 2019 so far. Ellie Gowers is one of our area's most talked about & admired artists (by audiences & fellow musicians) & one whose star is waxing greatly. As she has been involved in the Bristol scene for the past few years, her fans have seen less of her around her home town & in fact it is quite a while since she has played Leamington. The Magic Lantern was consequently packed with tickets having sold swiftly. Ellie expressed her own pleasure not just of playing before her family, friends & local admirers but also as she had the chance to play a really long set, dusting off old songs she isn't always able to fit in & unveiling several brand new ones, mainly to be recorded next week in fact.
Naturally highly anticipated gigs can pile pressure on the artists & can struggle to meet excessive expectations. Not so on this occasion I can assure you: both Ellie & her support Henery (sic) enjoyed themselves as much as their audience & speaking for myself, my very high expectations were met & greatly exceeded.
Henery was a revelation. This was, he told us, his first solo gig of his original material in half a dozen years. Since his career with the Ellipsis is going so well, it is understandable that he has not had time for both. This is a huge shame (in a way: I'd certainly not want him to neglect the band) as he has some extremely well crafted songs of his own (there were so many songs from both artists all night and not one of them was "filler": if you want consistent high writing you can look to both for it). So did he sound like the Ellipsis was a question I asked myself in preparing for writing this & I still can't answer that I'm afraid. Obviously it is the same voice & the same musicianship. The same instinct for the catchy yet subtle. Solo work does him great credit as obviously with just a voice & acoustic guitar it showcases his talent in both departments. Yet the material was rather different from the band's. Occasionally "folk" in vocal & playing style, each song displayed a different character (which is great for holding the attention of the crowd).
I urged him to play more solo gigs (hopefully he will return to Temperance in the autumn) and he tells me that he is going to record this material so you can all share in what I enjoyed. In the meantime, you can check him out on his page here: https://www.facebook.com/heneryuk/
As for Ellie... well the set started in breathtaking fashion: and that set the scene for an astounding performance. Ellie bookended her performance with a cappella songs. She began with a rendition of her own song "Robin" (which I reviewed in "Hot Music Live" in August 2017 as the title track of her EP). She just stepped up to the microphone, with no introduction at all & began singing this beautiful song with no accompaniment. People were still taking their seats even: but she grabbed their instantly attention & proceeded to hold it all set: this artist can certainly create quite an impression on an audience & has a very strong bond with them. She talks of her desire to break down barriers between performer & those listening: you'll not be surprised to learn that we were invited to participate too. To skip forwards, the set ended with another unaccompanied version, this time of "Falcon" by Mimi & Richard Farina. It is possible that there were a few wet eyes by that time.....
In between was quite extraordinary. Like Henery, Ellie's set contained remarkable writing & diversity, working our emotions right through. This is one heck of a stage performer though: armed only with a guitar or mandolin (and twice with neither as noted) plus an amazing voice, Ellie puts on a real show: none of which is contrived. She told me at the end how much she inhabits her songs while playing them & you can surely tell. Rarely still in face nor body, Ellie stalks, dances, bops & sways. If you filmed her & ran the footage without sound, you'd not equate her to "folk" (the usual label for her): she moves like a rock performer. Ranging (often within the context of the same song) from conveying heartrending tenderness (her cover of Richard Thompson's "Beeswing" being a highlight in terms of this end of her emotional spectrum) to sheer gale force power, Ellie delivers songs of considerable complexity and depth of tone: they are extraordinarily well crafted & then delivered. She noted that her Dad had felt that one of her new songs was overly loud: personally I thought it was excellent: definitely folk rock rather than folk.
Her songs include those about personal experiences & reflections, encompass traditional folk idioms occasionally even delve back into musical archaeology with her authentic Tudor rendering of the sixteenth century hit "Greensleeves" with her mandolin standing in for a lute.
I walked home afterwards with my head full of things I wanted to say about the night: I knew that the danger was of my saying far too much & losing your attention (ironic given that neither artist claim close to that), so I've reined myself in, hoping I've managed to convey something of our experiences last night. I'll just repeat what I've said so often recently. We are so lucky to have so many unique & fiercely individual artistic voices around at present: it was not always so & unless we support & demonstrate our support for them, we may not signal how much their art means to us all. I can't wait to see Ellie again & a date back at the same venue is being set up as I write.