Shona Foster – The Rose Hill – 6th October 2017

When I first found myself in The Rose Hill about a year ago I marvelled at the number of musicians I recognised dotted around the pub: over half the people sat at tables I’d seen in some band or other over the last few years. It felt like some sort of speak-easy for musos and I liked it! Funny then that this was only my third visit since, but it gave me the opportunity to see how much the pub has moved forward. It now boasts one of the best selections of booze in town at some of its most reasonable prices. Enough about the venue, tonight was all about the music, of course!

Ellie Ford opened up proceedings with a solo performance on the harp. Equipped with that beast of an instrument from a bygone era, her voice and a loop station, she was able to weave together some pretty spell-binding sounds. The harp lends itself ably to looping, having a large body to knock at various angles in order to produce beats. In her approach to layering, these ‘beats’ often came later after establishing a solid groove with a harp part, allowing the percussive sounds to scatter underneath, like an old sample-based hip-hop record. She presented a great marriage of old and new, with her folky-blues tendencies enhanced by harshly plucked low-resonating bass notes counter-balancing the beautiful arpeggios woven up top. It has been a while since I listened to Ellie’s wonderful debut album The Other Sun, but it felt like tonight was focussed on new and different material: still, that hasn’t stopped me going back and re-listening to the album, I highly recommend it.

Similarly, Shona Foster largely avoided earlier material tonight in favour of presenting her new band, new songs and a generally new vibe to a very friendly room. The sympathetic crowd were welcome tonight, after I’d seen her earlier in the year get drowned out by a stampede of Great Escapers in the Pelirocco. We’re eased into the set with ‘Lose Ourselves’, a bit of a slow-burn, with Shona providing bass on keyboard. Aside from a couple of tracks where this trick is employed, it’s the lack of keyboards which make the biggest difference to earlier presentations of Shona’s work that I’ve seen: she’s always seemed attached to piano-heavy arrangements, but those are banished now, with a band sporting three guitarists (including Shona) and a drummer. The effect, as particularly presented in these opening numbers, is no less beguiling. The atmosphere is built in subtle guitar layers, with tremolos and sweeps. I find myself thinking more than once of film composer Ennio Morricone, most famous for his work on classic 70s Westerns. There is some of that prairie feel to this music, with subtle hints of Latin mystery. Although they do not play ‘Dear Sir’, a newer song which appeared as a live performance video on YouTube a couple of years ago, it carries the blueprint for some of the songs on display tonight, albeit sans piano!

Shona’s voice is as ethereal as ever, you can’t help but be blown away by her haunting vibrato, and her ear for harmony is self-evident. As with her previous group everyone in the band sings, and these layers of vocals build at times, lending weight to crescendos. It’s most obvious in the middle of the set, with the familiar numbers dropped from her debut: ‘Bad Intentions’, ‘Love & War’ and especially ‘Oh Patience’. The counter-point backing vocals and harmonies lines sound really great tonight, especially with new guitarist Helen Durden’s voice working so well combined with Shona’s. The songs are lent an extra weight in their piano-less rearrangements and they really work, leading us into the last third of the set, where a darker, rockier beast that’s been lurking beneath starts to rear its claws. There are moments where we build from the brooding atmosphere, all the way up to powerhouse rock outs that would have worked in Nirvana’s hands. Penultimate song, ‘The Death Of Me’ ends up as my favourite of the night, building as it does from Shona and her guitar, with a classic Americana chord progression that could have come from the pen of Leonard Cohen, all the way up to soaring, transcendent rock. It’s humble and early beginnings for this new incarnation of Shona Foster's live group – but if they can sound this big on this small a stage, they’ve got nothing to worry about!

Adam Kidd