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'The Righteous Jazz' by The Mechanicals Band

Review

We cover some excellent artists in the magazine who produce some great material. One extra special profile of an artist (to me) is one who works or collaborates across artforms, and another is a sort of restless one, who is ceaselessly seeking to develop ideas & who keeps a reviewer on their toes.

A really good example of both would be The Mechanicals Band. Inasmuch as you can pin down what they do, they set poems to new music (though that is far from all they do) and their music links hands intimately with not only poetry & drama too.

Their 2017 debut ‘Exit, Pursued by Bear‘ (when they were Rude Mechanicals) had a strong, yet not exclusive focus on Shakespeare & ideally was appreciated in performances they gave with the collaboration of actors. Then came 2019's ‘Miscellany #1' EP which set more recent poems by a range of writers.

However for the past few years, their main focus has been ‘The Righteous Jazz' project: a wholly Philip Larkin orientated one which went public in 2019 in a short form at Coventry's Shoot Festival & after Arts Council Funding was secured, a longer theatrical performance was given at both the Tin Arts in Coventry & Hull Truck Theatre, with the dramatic aspects directed by Connor Alexander & performed by Lisa Franklin & Steve Brown. Hopefully you read our review of the evening at the Tin from November 2019.

You might reasonably suppose then that their release of  ‘The Righteous Jazz' album will serve to capture the musical aspects of the show. This however, being the Mechanicals, is only part of the answer as no fewer than three of the eight songs have been created since those performances & hence we'll need to look forwards to hearing them live during the delayed tour of the project.

Wes Finch (guitar & lead vocals), Jools Street (violin), Ben Haines (drums and percussion), Katrin Gilbert (viola) and John Parker (double bass) have created another mesmerising collection which in very broad terms musically acknowledges Larkin's profound love of jazz but equally brings in a fair range of other styles, subtly woven into the tapestry.

Although Wes is the principle setter of existing lyrics to new tunes, as with earlier work, Jools has composed two tracks "Mr Bleaney" and "High Windows" & these raise the intriguing question of "can you capture the work of a writer without actually using their or any other words?". It's not as paradoxical as it might sound, for though "High Windows" is indeed an instrumental , though named for Larkin's poem, the band eschew actually setting the words as they have with all their previous word & just let Jools' stately & dignified tune evoke the absent lyrics. A bold move but hardly the first of their career.

"Mr Bleaney" is a little more conventional in that Wes does recite the poem of that name over Jools' ragtime tinged composition: but again this breaks new ground in that hitherto, the poems have tended to be sung rather than delivered in this manner.

"This Be The Verse" is probably the one text in the project whose use was unavoidable (I believe Wes & the band  selected all the poems to use themselves) given that this is the one poem by Larkin everyone knows (if they know of his work at all) & whose opening is presumably his most quoted lines. The band however do not tiptoe around this cultural icon with deference but approach it, as with everything else, with confidence & love and manage to bring fresh life to the meaning of the words.

On the other hand, "Long Lion Days" is one of the least known of the poet's work: composed in late July 1982 and unpublished during his lifetime, Wes  discovered it, rescued it from obscurity & now it is among the most loved not only of the band's live repertoire but also in Wes' solo sets (when these are possible): an excellent example of the deep power of the project & one which lends Larkin a service by revealing another side to his personality, often ignored. Were there to be a single released from this album, I should have thought that this was the outstanding candidate. Personally, having heard it live so many times, having a recorded version at last is delightful.

"Horns of the Morning" is I think the song I've heard second most often in concert to date (I assume it thus to be one of the earlier ones to be created) and is another tune inspired by the earlier jazz forms in terms of the arrangement, yet the vocal melody swings back towards a more folk tone, appropriate maybe given that this is another of the poet's more pastoral & optimistic pieces.

Of the newer songs, it's not too surprising that given the idea of setting the poems of a man who was jazz critic of the Times for a decade that the band should plump for one of his more overtly musically themed ones (from  1954): hence "For Sidney Bechet". The tune tips its hat to the New Orleans sound alluded to in the lyrics rather than the older stylings of "Horns of the Morning" in a most compelling and authentic manner. It's good to hear horns on this song, though ironically not the saxophone associated with the subject of the poem…. It's the groovy cut on the album.

"Days" shares a title with the famous Kinks song and some of that track's reflective tone: a timeless meditation on our lives & the human condition: it particularly resonates with the relentless passage of days during the pandemic & conceivably that is why this poem has been selected. The sound is much more classic Mechanicals with prominent violin & viola, echoing the sound of the first two albums.

"Trees", which closes the latest collection is rightly placed there & I think a very good decision: another of Larkin's best known works, this equation of seasonal changes to those of life & death is a profound one & the band rise to the challenge of a tune & performance to match it. Elegiac & melancholic at turns, this should, in my opinion, be a significant live addition to their repertoire & I look forward to hearing them perform this & the other tracks at the earliest opportunity.

As with all their earlier work, there is boldness in what the Mechanicals present us with: yes the tunes are highly melodic & burrow into our heads easily, but the apparent ease with which they perform the songs should not blind us from the challenges before them initially, to capture the essence of a complex individual, often using very well known texts & say something new about them.

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The Mechanicals Band & Ellie Gowers

Review

One of the final formal gigs I shall attend in 2019 was also one of the best: the highest possible levels of musicianship but even more importantly played with love for the music & where performers & audience were locked into a symbiotic embrace by it.

From the first notes of Ellie's a cappella rendition of Mimi & Richard Farina's "Falcon" to the final ones of an unplugged version of "Sigh No More Ladies" by Wes Finch & John Parker which respectively opened & closed the evening at the Tin, we were transfixed by the beauty & truth of what we were hearing, made particularly effective by the marvellous acoustics & superb sound picture.

I make no apologies for reviewing either act yet again & once more urge you to catch them live: however great their recordings are (and they are), they reach yet new heights live: and both feature very significant songs in their repertoire which have yet to be recorded.

What a year for Ellie: having graduated with a First on her music degree, her name & reputation are soaring. I can't thank her enough for contributing to "Hot Music Live Presents Volume Two" where her "Against The Tide" is gaining multiple compliments. From her opening with "Falcon" (she seems to like a cappella songs about birds as she often opens, without fanfare, with her own "Robin") through magnificent compositions like "Against the Tide" and two you must look out for when she releases them, the unbelievably poignant "For a While" and the zeitgeisty "Sky is On Fire", her beautiful rendition of Richard Thompson's "Beeswing", in the words of Russell Whitehead (who has seen a few gigs in his time),"(her )....voice had everyone in reverie"

Check out all things Ellie at:

https://elliegowersmusic.com

https://www.facebook.com/EllieGowersMusic/

 

Headliners the Mechanicals (and let's not fail to mention band members Katrin Gilbert, Ben Haines & Jools Street as well as John & Wes) were back at the site of their triumphant performance of "The Righteous Jazz" on November & appropriately opened with a selection of pieces from it (more songs not yet released: I hope they will be soon) before moving onto their released albums with songs from the largely Shakespearean ‘Exit, Pursued by Bear' (which I believe has now sold out of hard copies) and then the most recent, ‘Miscellany #1'. The encore (in a rather Nizlopi type move) was, as mentioned, Wes & John unplugging, deserting the stage & playing the hit from "Much Ado About Nothing' among the audience,  with a waltz around each other to boot.

They also had a brand new limited edition cartoon of themselves as merchandise which I think I ought to bring to your attention.

Will 2020 be able to match or top nights like this? It'll be great seeing it try.

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The Mechanicals Band present The Righteous Jazz

Review

Occasionally I've been able to review for "Hot Music Live" an event which involves but is not limited to music: a particular pleasure. Today is one of those occasions & involves a set of artists whose vision is to stretch outside music & embrace other art forms: namely the Mechanicals Band.  Last evening I & a full house joined them at the Tin for what they describe as a "hybrid show" which is focused upon the life & work of Coventry born & educated Philip Larkin, one of the major twentieth century British poets: indeed a man who was offered & declined the Poet Laureateship.

The show, commissioned by the Shoot Festival, has already had one performance at the Hull Truck  Theatre on the 2nd of this month (Larkin was the University Librarian in Hull) and several of the original settings of his poems have been performed in concert by the band in recent months: "Long Lion Days" in particular is already an audience favourite & was demanded as an encore last night.

However the several poetic settings were greatly added to in the show with a glorious mixture of original jazz instrumentals & instrumental versions of largely pre-war standards (I imagined many being sung by the likes of Al Bowlly).

The band as is their wont, have been working tremendously hard (among many other professional commitments for Wes Finch (vocals & guitar), John Parker (double bass), Ben Haines (drums & percussion), Katrin Gilbert (viola) and Jools Street (violin)) and it has long been my desire to witness the end product.

An ambitious piece, directed by Connor Alexander, with very few moments without music being played, Steve Brown portrayed Larkin & long time Mechanicals Band collaborator (she was a key player in the full theatrical performances of their first album, the Shakespeare centred ‘Exit, Pursued by Bear') Lisa Franklin brought his intimate friend Monica Jones to life.

Rather than just playing, the band were involved in dialogue too, each reciting the letters to & from Larkin which formed the spine of the show (augmented by what sounded like excerpts from his ‘Desert Island Disks') with Wes taking the role of Kingsley Amis and as such deservedly getting his face slapped by Monica for rude comments about her in a letter to Larkin.

Other detailed delights were a rare vocal performance (on a blues) by John and a loud drum retort by Ben to Larkin's querying of drums actually being an instrument.

The imposition of dialogue over music offered a tough technical challenge & the show did not shy away either from the less comfortable aspects of jazz lover Larkin's personality (and of course that of Amis): misogyny, racism & ultimately his behaviour towards Monica who emerges as the sympathetic figure. It is interesting that another of his love interests Maeve Brennan is represented  in the show at best as an empty chair & an absence.

The climax of the play & its most poignant moment for me was when Monica sadly shredded his letters towards the end.

Musically the night was exactly as you'd expect from such virtuosi, with obvious show stoppers like "Long Lion Days", "The Horns of the Morning" or their setting of "This Be the Verse" whose notorious opening provided a nod back to their previous "Rude" title: as indeed did a lot of dialogue given the frankness of the characters concerned. Other pieces such "High Windows" have become known to fans via social media, but tonight was the first time we'd heard them live.

 

This is a most commendable, enjoyable & rewarding  piece on so many levels, certainly musical & theatrical & also offering glimpses of a local figure of stature but without being a wholly commendable role model. What is wrong with subtlety, finesse & ambiguity in art after all? The packed & enthusiastic Tin crowd certainly appreciated it & as noted demanded more. Let's hope this show, into which so much has been put, will not be limited to just two performances.

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The Mechanicals Band with special guest Ellie Gowers

Review

Well here I am again, this time reviewing not one but two artists on whom I fear I may have already used up my supply of appropriate superlatives in previous reviews.

But of course not. They are so good that the last thing either would do is simply produce facsimiles of past concerts.

The Mechanicals don't have support acts as a rule, yet such is the level of mutual admiration that yesterday afternoon at the Magic Lantern, this rule was set aside for their guest Ellie Gowers. After all they have much in common: consummate musicianship, impeccable taste, a drive to create their own music on entirely their own terms plus one other similarity which I'll reveal in a moment.

The latter as is her wont, held the rammed venue spellbound: from her traditional a cappella "Robin" set opener, you could hear a pin drop. Even when she started playing her guitar, the intensity of her performance was only matched by that of the audience's attention to it.

 

 As I've said before, Ellie completely inhabits her own songs, dancing & moving to them with a restless energy matched in the pieces themselves: passionate lyrical images set in idiosyncratic melodic structures: although Ellie is probably thought of as a "folk" singer, her writing completely avoids the traditional formal structures of that genre with neither words nor music repeating in the predictable ways of the canon. We are always kept guessing at what is coming next.

 

The only negative aspect of Ellie's set in fact was that immediately after delivering what sounded to us all as a haunting pitch perfect rendition of "For A While", she was forced to curtail her set as her voice had gone. What it must have cost her to deliver that last song in that way is impossible to guess, but I thank her as the song is one of my favourites: I defy anyone not to have a moistness in the eye so moving are the words & melody.

 

I suppose too that it was fortunate that one of the songs she had in the earlier part of the setlist was a brand new one "The Sky Is On Fire" which could well be her finest so far. I suggested it was "zeitgeisty" to her afterwards & she seemed happy with that so I'll leave it in. You really do have to hear it to appreciate it so I recommend that you attend one of her live shows since Ellie also said that she won't be recording it until she has, in her own mind, perfected it (and since she has plans for future musical collaboration, I imagine that will be a factor in its final arrangement). And don't just take my word for it: I think we can safely say that if a musician who was present and has had a number one single calls it "awesome" then it is indeed a really great song. (Incidentally I am just adding this sentence as while I was finishing my review I caught sight of a comment by Adam Barry of Merrymaker about Ellie saying "Simply put, I don't have the vocabulary to put how good this girl is into words. From the opening line to the final chord, she's hands down one of the best artists I've ever ever had the pleasure to listen to and to hang out with.....you're an inspiration, and you've NO idea how good you are. Incredible". How could I not include that?)

 

Catch up with all things Ellie Gowers at her online bases:

 

elliegowersmusic.com

 

https://www.facebook.com/EllieGowersMusic

 

You can catch her live back at Temperance on September 7th with Greengrass as her special guests.

 

And thus the Mechanicals began their set a little earlier than scheduled, by about two songs' worth of time. They too had temporarily lost a vital element but more fortunately it didn't stop them playing. Viola player Katrin Gilbert was unable to be part of the band & as drummer Ben Haines said, the other four filled the space she left in the arrangements. This manifested itself in several ways including violinist Jools Street standing rather than sitting and in the intimate space of the Magic Lantern, there was more room for him and double bassist John Parker to move about as their music took them, adding a visual element not usually associated with the Mechanicals. Whether this too accounted for the slight shift in the set towards the more jazz orientated end of their repertoire is moot: it may have been a nod to the recent birthday of Philip Larkin (born 97 years and two days previously): they have been working on a suite of songs "The Righteous Jazz" for a hybrid music/drama celebration of his life. Several of the songs from that project were played, along with three of the Shakespearean settings from their first album ‘Exit, Pursued By Bear' and several from their latest EP, ‘Miscellany #1', moving seamlessly from jazz to folk to classical & various composite styles entirely of their own, enriched by the textures only musicians of such calibre can bring, yet not allowing their own virtuosity to detract or distract from their prime objective, to give poems they (especially singer/guitarist Wes Finch) admire, settings which complement & enhance the original words.

 

 I have noted in previous reviews how although starting with writers well known to me, such as Shakespeare, Masefield, Larkin, Yeats etc, their latest work has introduced me to poets previously I was unaware of (thank you), none more unknown to me than the most recent writer they have set, Australian artist/cartoonist/poet Michael Leunig whose poem "When The Heart" was in the set & it was a highlight of the evening to have Australian audience members who were familiar with him &  his work: a first apparently for the band.

 

Where they  had a similarity with Ellie I mentioned earlier, was in playing a superb & unrecorded (to date) new song "I've Got Your Back": the only original song of Wes they played & I think one of his best, even by his high standards. As with "The Sky Is On Fire", this is one I'd really liked to hear recorded & to thus have with me.

 

It was a wet day outside & the steam rose from the audience as Ellie observed. However the sheer joie de vivre of musicians so enjoying what they were doing, what each other was doing & the audience in turn appreciated this themselves made for an afternoon & early evening not to miss however damp we were to begin with. I'll give it five stars as that's what real reviewers do.

 

The Mechanicals will be performing "The Righteous Jazz" on November 2nd at Hull Truck by the way.

 

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The Mechanicals Band

Review

Congratulations: you are about to get a double review. Since the Mechanicals Band kindly played the entirety of their new "Miscellany #1" EP (in order too) yesterday at the Magic Lantern, it seems efficient & appropriate to describe both at the same time.

The Mechanicals do like to keep their audience surprised & delighted. Starting off as being intimately linked to the work of Shakespeare, the initial  portion of their first set of this latest gig was dedicated to Philip Larkin: specifically in playing part of a suite of pieces specially created for a performance as part of the SHOOT Festival : both settings of his poetry & pure instrumentals. One such was "High Windows" composed by violin player Jools Street & they were joined by their friend Steve who will be taking the part of Larkin & who recited the poem of that name.  Other songs included a setting of "This Be The Verse" (as Wes put it, rather ironically given that it was Mothering Sunday & the poem opens with the well known musing of the poet on parents) and "Long Lion Days", one of my favourites of their newer material. You can join them for this suite in full at the Tin on Sunday 7th April from 1700 (https://www.coventryshootfestival.com/)

After the Larkin material, the first set was rounded off with songs from their first album, "Exit, Pursued by a Bear": viola player Katrin Gilbert's composition "The Water is Wide" & settings of "Ophelia's Song" and John Masefield's "Cargoes"

The second part was chiefly the complete performance of the new EP (available on all digital platforms and now on the Temperance playlist too) as already mentioned and so I'll take the opportunity to discuss the songs on it as promised.

 

First up is/was W B Yeats'  "Meditation of an Old Fisherman" delivered in a sympathetic elegiac form & this really sets the tone for the whole EP. Generally, two themes emerge in hindsight from the first album. Firstly, those lyrics are generally well known to  listeners: thus one reacts to the beauty & appropriateness of the settings and arrangements & delights in them. Secondly, the majority of the words are by a single writer. It is a Shakespearean album with some additions. This new EP is a genuine miscellany with each track, carefully selected by Wes Finch  with the aim of both touching our emotions & being suitable for the Mechanicals method,  originally written by a different writer & moreover with the obvious exception of Yeats, not remotely as well known as Shakespeare nor Masefield (or maybe I'm just not cultured enough??). Thus no single writer dominates but also, crucially, the Mechanicals themselves (and in addition to Jools & Katrin and singer/guitarist Wes, the band features double bass player John Parker and drummer/percussionist Ben Haines) inhabit this record more and hence the tracks sound like their own songs. Even this one by the most famous of the poets fits their sound and character snugly.

The second track, the personally nostalgic & perfectly evoked in detail "Recuerdo" by Edna St. Vincent Millay sounds just like the sort of narrative tales Wes  writes so compellingly in his solo work. As the protagonists of this song disembark their ferry and make their way back home by the turn of the last century New York subway, via an act of charity, you might imagine them encountering the haunted narrator of "Jackie's Stone".

 

 

"Time You Old Gipsy Man" by Ralph Hodgson came next (and still does if you have the record) Fittingly this jigs along to fiddle play suggested by the subject and switches from the melancholia infusing its predecessors into the first dance song on the EP, while recalling somewhat in its imagery the aforementioned "Cargoes"

 

"Along the Road" by Robert Browning Hamilton is the work of one whose name while reminiscent of a famous poet (I wonder how often mistakes are made?) is not familiar with me: so thanks to the band for the introduction. A stately waltz of a song, it takes the record back to the philosophy of its opening track.

 

Finally, but far from last in quality or impact is "Ode" by Arthur O'Shaughnessy, which might be more familiar from its opening "We Are the Music Makers" line (how very apt: can't have been a difficult decision to set this one) and we are back into dancing mood. Probably the most radio friendly song, if the Mechanicals could be considered "pop", I gather this has broken the airplay duck for the record on local BBC. Certainly it's an ear worm (speaking personally) and one I look forward to staying in the set for a long time.

Once the record was played, the band were scheduled to finish the gig but they pulled more impromptu delights out of their repertoire by popular demand including a new poetic setting and finally an infectious  zydeco instrumental.

 

This is a venue for playing new material: it is also a venue where audience/performer barriers barely exist and the bond this afternoon was palpable with ongoing chatter & jokes as well as applause and even a box of chocolates being communally shared around as the one aspect of this being a sort of record launch. It was a delightful part of a sunny Spring Sunday afternoon on a day of celebration with such skilled & popular musicians clearly enjoying themselves as much as their guests. Catch them at the Tin if you can, otherwise they should be back at the Magic Lantern on another Sunday afternoon this Summer.

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