Heal the Last Stand, Telfords Warehouse, Chester, Thursday 18 March 2010
It's been a sad week for music-lovers: John Sicolo, Micky Jones, Alex Chilton, Charlie Gillett, Mark Linkous - all passing away within days of each other. The mood has been sombre. None of these men were friends, but the music they either made or encouraged was. Their legacies live on, of course, but there is still a sense of loss. When times are hard it's the good people we turn to for solace and inspiration, and there is less of both around at the end of this week.
These are the events that have coloured my mood. It's Thursday night and I feel hang dog, like a Tom Waits song waiting to happen, and that makes what happens on this of all nights all the more remarkable.
I've been playing Wrexham's Heal the Last Stand on my show for a few years. Their music is a spring breeze of freshness and hope blowing through the cynical fury of many of their peers. I love cynical fury. But when it gets claustrophobic and unremitting, I can think of few bands better to soothe fizzing eardrums and ruptured spirits than Heal the Last Stand.
Joey, Stan, Laura and Tom are mostly brothers and sister. The genetic code they share between them makes their harmonies ring particularly bright and true. And they share a spiritual vision. Now, in all honesty I found their debut album too unremitting in its positivity. I thought - at times - it sounded facile and platitudinous. But I know better, now.
They sing songs of hope, love, understanding and the soaring potential of the human spirit. If you're gagging at this point, ask yourself why? I mean, I did. Gag, I mean. My initial listen to the album felt like I had been cornered by a fervent and dogged band of Jehovah's Witnesses who had an answer to every one of my cynical rebuttals.
Get out of my face with your hippy dippy, happy clappy nonsense!
"It's all right, man. We love you. Let the spirit in. Don't be cynical."
But I don't want to hear songs about smiling and sunshine. I want tears and rain. TEARS AND RAIN, I TELL YOU!
"The storm will pass, brother, and we'll be here waiting if you want us. It's a better place. We promise." (big smile of genuine affection)
I reach for the off button... which says a lot more about me and where I was at the time than it does about the band.
Since that first listen to the album I've returned to it a couple of times eager - desperate at times, even - for some of the camaraderie it offered so freely and without self-consciousness.
But it wasn't until they sang for us on Wales Music Day that Heal the Last Stand really started to click for me. They're not Bambi-eyed dropouts. There are lives hard-lived in those eyes. The positivity in the songs is informed by no small amount of pain and personal discovery, I'd wager. It's defiant, not empty. Rather like when The Band wove tapestries of hope out of disenfranchised lives lived on the edge. And judging by their soul shaking version of Levon and the Hawk's The Stones I Throw, it's a comparison they'd appreciate.
So, we get beautiful, stirring renditions of album tracks like: Take a Step, the Garden and Smile. These sound more lived in and yearning than the recorded counterparts on the album. I just stuck the album on to test that theory and I'm wrong, actually. The yearning was there all along. It was me that missed it, initially. Funny how your opinion can change, isn't it?
We also get newer songs that speak in a more extensive musical vocabulary: the vaudeville, barbershop craft of Forgive and Forget (current Radio Wales single of the week) and some bluesy song that hints of the storms that preceded this break in the clouds.
We get an impromptu fag break half way through; the sight of Laura beating her guitar with 'The Captain' to great percussive effect; and the best harmonies you'll hear this side of (vintage) Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Laura's voice - in particular - is pure, unaffected and epitomises the simple hopes and real human beauty at the heart of these most generous songs.
Astonishingly, the cloth-eared still populate the bar area taking all this vocal majesty for granted. It's exactly like ignoring the Grand Canyon if it took the trouble to come and visit a venue near you just because you'd seen it a few times on the telly.
It won't be for everyone. But you're all invited, regardless. It was the perfect tonic for a crappy week. Music works its healing magic once again.