Tuesday 10 December 2013


Live Review

Glee Club, Birmingham

The Old Dance School came home for this rescheduled gig at The Glee Club from what has been an extensive tour. 

The Old Dance School
TODS is one of those bands in the vein of, among others, Bellowhead which have their feet firmly in the folk tradition but have expanded into a fusion strand introducing other genres of music into their sound.
The septet, who take their name from the Betty Fox School of Ballet in Selly Oak, Birmingham, opened the gig, which was being filmed for a coming DVD, with Helen Lancaster introducing the slow air The Enlli Light from their album Chasing The Light. 
It had elements of the Celtic amid all the other layers which included a funk-jazz style with the individual sound from each of the members being gradually intertwined and like so many of their tunes just teeters on the edge of a big a finish but never quite goes over. This gave way to Craigie Hill from the great singer and political raconteur Dick Gaughan and his song about Irish migration, a soft ballad which had a funky opening from Aaron Diaz on trumpet providing a mellow, laid back brass sound with Jim Molyneux on drums and Robin Beatty on vocals.
The next offering, The Taxidermist, came from their second album Forecast which is a story about what it says on the tin. The story goes that Beatty came across a recently deceased hare in the snow and took it to the taxidermist of the title in Llangollen, Wales - and there can't be too many of those - and had it stuffed, which just goes to show folk musicians can be inspired by the most bizarre of events.
It opened with an ethereal, bluesy feel similar to something from Ry Cooder and seemed to take ages to get going. It was another of those long instrumentals which TODS does so well, there were nice strands of fiddle provided, along with the serpentine movements of Samantha Norman, and her partner in strings Lancaster. It’s again one of those numbers in which you can definitely identify folk elements but there was also a very strong strand of jazz running through it.
The Old Dance School from Birmingham
From the same album Beatty brought in Strange Highway which had a feel of Rod Stewart’s version of Gasoline Alley. His high pitched but slightly gravelly voice gave a nice edge to the ballad.
The traditional sound of John Ball written by Sydney Carter once again gave Lancaster and Norman a chance to show how well they play together whether on fiddle or viola. Their sound was flawless from the pizzicato opening to the full-on string sound they executed so perfectly.
Again using their trademark method, each musical layer was added with Carter bringing the sound of the flute to the strings in a playful and musical dance which then gave way to Molyneux on the drums and when it had reached a crescendo the band then started to unpick the sounds bringing it back down to just the two stringed instruments and Diaz adding the electronics for the background before Carter picked it up again and then in came Beatty with the words.
They opened again after the break with Norman and Lancaster playing pizzicato before giving way to the rapid sound of Carter with an upbeat jig-style sound which was filled in by Diaz on electronics and then Lancaster introduced a new strand, the viola, adding a deeper rasp to proceedings. Lancaster again showed perfectly the precision with which she wields her instrument.
Silver Tide followed this which is a tune written by Lancaster and inspired by a seascape she once witnessed in Wales. It’s a thoughtful, slow and doleful air which is gorgeously atmospheric and uses the notes to paint mental landscapes.
Beatty introduced one of their new songs, Where I’m From, inspired by a family’s dream being shattered by a fracking company in Pennsylvania who paid off the family and gagged both parents and the children so they couldn’t speak about where they had grown up or why they had moved without facing legal penalties.
The tune was a jaunty rhythmical hare hopping up and down with an almost reggae beat underneath it. But even though the tune was light-hearted and extremely catchy, don’t be fooled the lyrics are sharp and telling.
They went from this into another instrumental, From The Air which is a track off their third album, Chasing The Light, opening with the strings it was a smooth jazz-style sound which wouldn’t be out of place in a smoky nightclub of the 1950s. This was again another of their trademark lengthy instrumentals which incorporates other elements along with the folk strand, such as electronics and a variety of percussion instruments with a smattering of muted trumpet thrown in for good measure.
Their album Chasing The Light
Another from the same album was Sula Sgier which is a granite rock in the Atlantic where there is tension between the locals and the RSPB because a local tradition sees an annual harvesting of gannets which are caught and eaten by locals on Ness. The trumpet featured more in this mixed in with the flute before giving way to a funkier sound created by the fiddles and guitar.
Molyneux came up with new song inspired by everyday things and the drummer didn’t take himself too seriously in explaining the origins of Blue Horse which is his Citroen Berlingo. The tune once again showed that TODS are willing to experiment and bring in new sounds and combinations to create their defining sound. It started with quite a psychedelic feel but then the more tradition sound of Carter and Lancaster came in over the top and it is perhaps one of their shortest instrumentals although it does have several phases where the instruments and soundtracks weave in and out.
Whether anyone actually would connect it with a blue French car without the opening explanation is anyone’s guess. But that’s the fascination of TODS music, is it has so many strands you can pretty much jump from image to image as each new sound comes and then rolls over for the next one.
The Real Thing from their Forecast album gave Beatty another chance to give his voice an outing and while he doesn’t have the strongest of voices it is distinctive and he has obviously worked hard so it meshes seamlessly with his fellow musicians.
The players who make up TODS are precision musicians and you can see it in the attention to detail in everything they do, if there was one criticism then they need to lighten up and have a little more fun while playing. They try and keep the mood light in between playing with their banter but it’s while executing their complex and intricate tunes that they need to let a little air into their performance. But when it comes to playing their respective instruments they could hold their own against the very best and if you want to see the legacy of bands such as Fairport Convention where folk musicians are willing to experiment and move away from the traditional without abandoning it completely then you could do a lot worse than spend a night at a TODS concert.

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