South Hill Park
It's the last night of The Earlies tour and the idea of support bands has been thrown out with the last bottle of wine. They're all propping each other up, moonlighting between groups and astonishing each other with their playing. It has the atmosphere of a giant group hug. Albeit, an exceptionally talented one.
Martha Tilston commands a hushed respect and isn't in the least bit fazed by the enormity of the theatre setting or opening for her good company. She sits centre stage , flanked by a solitary bass player and violinist. Together they lead us through a collection of soothing folk songs filled with humour and, as she's quick to point out, a high body count.
Martha, herself, is equipped with a voice most would be folk singers would murder their cardigan-wearing peers for. You can almost hear people slipping off shoes and shoulders unknotting as they slip a little lower into their seats.
Suitably relaxed, we open the Southern Comfort for Hem. This is music in wide screen. With slide guitars and layers of windswept orchestration it's hard to imagine that we are surrounded by a ring road in Bracknell and not en route to Arizona.
The singers are in playful mood. In between the sun-drenched harmonies, we're encouraged to sing happy birthday to the keyboard player and a glass of wine is toasted to a member of The Earlies. He's snuck on stage and accompanies them on ukulele, adding little flurries to the dainty xylophone and piano led choruses. In the last throws of winter, it's enough to warm the most frost bitten of hearts.
The Earlies don't do things by halves. This acclaimed transatlantic band of lush, sparkling country and Pet Sound era loving aficionados, currently number eleven players. The stage is overflowing with the entire contents of ten music shops. Befuddled Texans with banjos and Lancashire's finest noise experimentalists switch Stetsons and neck Stellas.
Tonight's set is based around songs from These Were..The Earlies album but the live experience is, well, a totally different experience. It's like comparing a black and white photo of a fireworks display to sitting on top of Sydney Opera House on New Year's Eve. Morning Wonder, with at least two drummers and the backing of an army of bleeping organs leaves us wanting to simultaneously swoon and rip out the seats for a dance.
New single, Bring It Back Again is so laden with melody that people begin to float down from the balcony. Put simply, this is an overdose of aural treats, like having a concentrated shot of all the best bits of Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips and Brian Wilson blast into our eardrums. Throughout, the 'end of tour' atmosphere is kept going with keyboardist, Christian Madden's comedy compering and Hem promoting/baiting. By the end you half feel like you were on the road yourself.
God, I'll miss those guys.