Wes Finch's Leap Year Gig: Live AlbumReview
Some six months ago, I wrote what to date is my penultimate live review for the magazine: concerning Wes Finch's Leap Year gig. At the time, the prospect of losing such performances wasn't being discussed (things would swiftly change on that front) and it was "just" a magical evening on a special date which could be enjoyed on its own merits & not with a sense of what was to follow. Which probably made for a better review at the time.
On the evening, after a characteristically haunting set from Ellie Gowers, Wes rang the changes with a cast of musicians he has worked with who nearly outnumbered his audience. These comprised Bradley Blackwell and John Parker alternating on double bass, Gee Vaughan & Ben Haines both on drums, Matt Lakey who played banjo (and keyboards on one track) while Paul Hartry & Liz Cowley provided backing vocals. Jools Street played his violin & on brass there were Hugh Rashleigh (who also played keyboards on some songs as well as his customary trumpets), James Hopkin (trumpet), Evan Hopkin (trombone) & Jon Lambdon (tuba)
Covering much of his career, the setlist represented a form of retrospective & "to date" summation, although I'm reluctant to call it a "greatest hits" as I'm sure people will have had favourites for which there sadly was no room on that occasion.
Recorded by Ian Whitehead for posterity, one of the intentions of the evening was to release the outcomes as a live album & now, despite all the constraints Wes & Ian must have been working under both on the night and subsequently, this is nearing fruition I'm pleased to say& I have had the privilege to hear it.
The tracks of course exist & have done for ages, but a few details remain to be confirmed: one being the precise release date (although it is pretty imminent) and the tracklisting is nearly decided (I gather there is still a decision to be made over one song). As one format may (in addition to a download) be a double vinyl collection, this has meant going back to very traditional skills of sequencing which I found exciting when Wes told me & had my mind running back to my original versions of records and trying to remember how "sides" ended & the dynamics of such records as opposed to more contemporary sets on CDs & downloads.
So whether the record emerges as fifteen or sixteen songs, it places me in an unusual position which frankly I am happy to be in as it asks new questions of me as a reviewer. Many times have I told you about recordings I have heard but clearly was not at the sessions in which they were created. Equally, until March this year, I was able to describe live performances, often, but not always featuring songs already recorded by the artists. In this instance, I am having to (re)describe not just songs about whose recordings I've written but precisely the same performance I wrote about months ago: a real sense of déjà vu.
As you can probably tell, for me, little beats the emotional impact of a live rendition & I am very prone to letting myself be immersed in the moment: my recollection of the night in question is that the whole audience was of like mind to me & this applied too to Ellie's set.
So in the cold light of day, how do these identical pieces impact on me now? Will the magic of the night be revealed as a temporary illusion fuelled by the atmosphere? Many times I have returned to what I thought were old favourites: books, music, film, places etc only to find disappointment as the filters of youth & childhood have fallen away.
As you might have predicted, no such thing applies in this case. Yes, I can distinguish my own responses to the songs & I really do contend that listening live & to recordings are different experiences, but perhaps ones that complement each other.
At any rate, as some sort of recording for history of what the live Wes Finch experience might be, whether for those unfortunate enough not to be able to see him or those temporarily deprived of the opportunity or even to store up for our autumn years, it does its job really effectively. It touches emotional buttons for me & that's what I ask of it. Once again, a big tip of the hat to Ian for capturing both the sound & the atmosphere so authentically. Technically it cannot have been an easy exercise.
The tracks all have a warmth & immediacy which add to the studio versions (where they exist) & given both the calibre of the players & the familiarity they have with the material (though again I raise my headwear to several of the brass players to who the songs were not necessarily previously known), the songs flew into different & interesting new places: I sensed both vocal & instrumental playfulness at times which is a feature of the record. Most, if not all of the songs have been manifested live in often very contrasting arrangements: the vast majority I've heard Wes do completely solo, stark & exposed, yet on this evening, they were played much more fully with nearly double figures players at times (and occasionally more) adding extra harmonies, counter melodies etc: and fantastic as these were at the time, it is only the repeated plays I've experienced since getting the tracks which have revealed most of them to me: and maybe that alone justifies your buying the album. I fully expect more revelations myself from future plays.
So which songs from the evening have made the cut? The decision making process cannot have been easy & Wes seems to have ensured that various eras of his career & key lineups continue to be represented after the edit. Equally, as I've said, the order has been switched (although I'd expect the cover of "Fisherman's Blues" by the Waterboys which closed the show to also close the album with its collective sense of community & cheer) in order to create the dynamics of a record rather than a gig (and of course on the night the logistics of switching over of musicians determined song sequences which no longer bind Wes).
Well of the unreleased songs, I'm pleased to see "Got Your Back" is on there so people can hear it if they haven't live & perhaps share with me my feeling that it is among his very finest work. Whether or when Wes records this one in a studio or not, this recording now has set a benchmark for the song.
The Silver Wye is represented by "Just My Luck" (here is in a different style to the record of course) and I'm also pleased that "The Pact" is included: a single which never really attracted the attention it deserved.
We are getting much closer to "Greatest Hit" territory with songs such as "Jackie's Stone", "Jack To Do", "Southern Cross", "Bowl of Stars" "Riverbed" etc & frankly any Wes career summation album which failed to include them would not be doing its job. Before I go any further, the description "all killer, no filler" had better be deployed (though it is probably what you'd expect) but I really can't go along with any notion that the album benefits in terms of quality through the distillation process: the same phrase would have applied had the entire set appeared on the album.
Beyond that, any description tends towards the purely subjective & I imagine the various songs have differing emotional impacts on you (as they do on me) depending on your relationship with them, the lyrics or simply your mood at any given time of listening.
As I said, repeated plays reveal new nuances & it could be (probably will be) that as you play it each time, different tracks will particularly appeal to you. "Got Your Back" has an especial impact on me given its excellence & relative newness I suppose but like several other recent releases by various "Hot Music Live Presents" artists & others, though written pre lockdown, it does speak to the current emotional climate & I should not quibble were it to emerge as a single.
The reordering probably works too in terms of trying to marshal the emotions on display: listening to them all repeatedly as I have for the last three days trying to make new sense of them individually & collectively, you realise that although the frisson which creeps up your spine is pretty much common to them all, it is interesting how much melancholia is present: even in the songs I've always marked down as upbeat in tone and/or subject: minor keys & chords suddenly take tracks in new directions, even if for only a short diversion & the instrumentation & harmonies while clearly capable of expressing both the most elevated of uplift, also plunge down into sorrow & not infrequently in the same piece. I suppose expressing the complexity (or at least duality) of our emotional lives is key to his expression & if so, this collection is a superb showcase for this aspect of his canon.
The album does several things: it presents a good broad range of Wes' songs to us, offering interesting new arrangements for aficionados, and perhaps an introduction to his work for those unfamiliar with it: all presented with the special passion and intensity of live performance: in this way it complements previously released versions. Is this an "end of chapter" record? Well possibly it can be so seen in some senses: I doubt if this exercise in respect of the songs will be repeated & given that recruitment for the event, taking into account the other commitments of the musicians (at least in the culture which existed on February 29th) must have presented logistical challenges quite apart from the technical recording ones, getting these particular people all together again wouldn't be easy. Wes always keeps moving forwards: his Silver Wye project has representation here but although three of his Mechanicals Band colleagues played, none of their repertoire was suitable. It is understandable that nostalgia trips are not too high on his agenda with so much he is bursting to move onto: especially given the frustrations of recent months. That said, I hope he keeps playing these songs in his sets, probably not so many from his back catalogue all at once though.
I was lucky to be there on the night but even if you weren't, I commend this record to you for the many reasons I have explored here.