Support act, Brighton-based Ellie Ford, could be part white witch for the Joanna Newsom tone to her voice. Often sounding like the fairy from much-loved 80s Christmas film, Scrooged, by this I obviously mean that Ford can switch from sailing purity to something more guttural in the pluck of her harp string, making for a captivating performance. Also drawing on influences such as Karen Dalton and Nick Drake, she fronts a band of four other musicians who champion her brand of understated contemporary folk. Making full use of a range of instruments, including saxophone, violin and clarinet, Ford writes songs to bewitch and intrigue and, showing off tracks from new album, The Other Sun, she uses the harp to create an orchestral rhythm, making her a local artist worthy of your attention. She thanks The Breath for having her towards the end of her set and, now standing at the back watching, they shout back that they think she’s great. Praise indeed.
It’s this sort of familiarity and openness that make The Breath such an absolutely wonderful live act. “It’s cosy in here. Nice to snuggle up. But I’m sweating under these lights”, singer Rioghnach Connolly swoons cheekily in her melodic Northern Irish accent, before she starts telling us about how satisfying it was to roll up some microphone leads prior to coming on stage. They are behind a curtain to the left of her and eventually she gets them out and puts them on the floor. “I just like to know they’re there”, she says, setting the scene for a show full to the brim of character. The Breath are usually made up of a few more musicians from Manchester’s rich scene but tonight it is just founding members, Connolly (best known perhaps for her collaboration with Afro Celt Sound System) and Cinematic Orchestra’s Stuart McCallum, and what they come up with here and now is breathtaking.
The duo clearly share a special bond, Connolly’s on-stage banter making her partner laugh, but it’s the way that they connect as songwriters that is really extraordinary. She jokes that they will perform “A syllabus of sorrow”, and, though their style is deep and meaningful – covering themes of famine and grief, for example – McCallum’s intricate guitar work and Connolly’s flawless delivery is more uplifting than it is depressing. There is no denying that watching them is emotional but with conversation spanning how good it is to poo after drinking too much coffee and how their song, ‘Antwerp’, was named after the city’s mythical giant called Antigoon (who cut off people’s hands and watched them float off down the river), it makes for not just a touching evening but also an endearing one.
McCallum seems more than happy to let Connolly shine through her entertaining rapport with the audience as she chats with nervous energy. “Does what I’m saying take away from our music?” she asks at one point. Instead, her musings actually make it stand out all the more. The contrast between her jokingly pretending to be Cher with the press of a button on an FX box in front of her, to when she proudly launches into another dramatic song drenched in harmoniser and notch filter, is impressively combined with McCallum’s constantly beautiful acoustic guitar arrangements. “Lovely”, she says to him as the room falls silent and he returns the compliment when he says how good her voice sounds. Experimentally layering and then stripping back her vocal makes for an amazing dynamic and, for all the comedic interludes, the raw talent displayed during their live performance is so jaw-dropping that they completely transcend the alt-folk label that has been lazily bestowed upon them. Only Connolly’s flute adds further instrumentation, which she clutches like a warrior throughout, a fine representation of the blend of ancient influences with a futuristic twist that make The Breath so interesting.
Playing material from both new album Let the Cards Fall and 2016’s Carry Your Kin, highlights are hard to pinpoint because everything they do is honestly so stunning. While ‘Boat Song’ creates a moodier atmosphere than, say, the peaceful, slightly spiritual acceptance of the title track from their latest release, they sit perfectly alongside each other. Connolly reveals that she is the person that sings her family members to sleep when they are dying and again at their funerals. If The Breath was the last thing that I ever heard, I would be thrilled. As they finally get a standing ovation, the pair hug each other with warm, genuine affection and obvious happiness at the fact that they have entertained and enjoyed every minute of it. No frills, no pretension, just two of the most gifted artists possibly ever to have graced this most simple and intimate of Brighton’s venues. If you like music, where the hell were you?