Albert Hall in Manchester is fast becoming my favourite venue in the north west and experiencing Angus and Julia Stone here tonight was the perfect way to conclude this most amazing of musical years. On the surface there is no logical reason why these Antipodean siblings should compliment each so well. Brother/sister duos are usually confined to the embarrassing audition stages of cringe-worthy talent shows, producing a dynamic so sickly-sweet that any individual ability becomes lost in the fog of unrefined sentimentality. Angus and Julia Stone function on a very different level. Tonight’s experience provides an illuminating insight into their creative dynamic, producing a pleasing complexity to their songs that is not always immediately apparent on record.
The evening begins in flawless style when The Staves casually walk on to the stage. Maintaining the family theme tonight, the Hertfordshire trio of sisters are fast becoming an established act in their own right. They seem to have been touring constantly since the release of debut album Dead & Born & Grown and this exposure means that many in attendance tonight are already familiar with their material. The acoustic set introduces those less acquainted with the folky melodies and gorgeous harmonies to their caustic humour as well, which contributes to a light-hearted forty minute set full of exquisite little moments to savour. First track of the night is Open from the recently released Blood I Bled EP, and this deftly presents the dynamic of the group to the uninitiated. Graceful acoustic melodies are complimented by harmonious vocals led by Jessica Staveley-Taylor. Angelic in their delivery, they are amplified further by the wonderful acoustics of this gloriously evocative, ecclesiastical setting. Vocal duties are shared throughout the set and Facing West follows, Camilla’s dulcet vocals are performed against a simple ukulele, enhanced by some extremely tuneful whistling from sister Emily. Perpetual touring certainly seems to have taken its toll and influenced their songwriting of late. America therefore not only represents a shift in tone, but the song demonstrates a cynical shift in theme, although the method of delivery remains consistent. We are next treated to a glorious a Capella rendition of Wisely and Slow and this is followed by the atmospheric Blood I Bled which will appear on the new album to be released in the new year. The Staves provide the perfect appetizer to the main course tonight, winning over many new friends in the process.
On their latest record, the eponymously titled Angus and Julia Stone, the siblings appear to evenly share the multifarious recording and performing duties. It quickly becomes apparent tonight that this is not the case on the stage. Julia Stone appears front and centre, her brother retreating to the shadows as the regimental rhythms of opening track A Heartbreak pound around us. The band have been accused of producing a sanitised interpretation of Laurel Canyon rock and roll but the mood generated by this track and it’s follow up Main Street dispels this theory to the scrap heap. A gloriously dark, portentous atmosphere populated by sombre characters with dubious pasts is wrought before us. The lighting tonight certainly accentuates this perception, enhancing the show to levels not previously experienced in a gig of this size before. Hats off to the lighting technicians indeed! The foreboding atmosphere and sublime lighting continues with For You, which demonstrates the fragility of Julia Stone’s vocals to glorious effect. Part Joanna Newsom, part Stina Nordenstam her performance is starkly beautiful, aided by wonderfully subtle musicians beside her. Next comes Angus’ bluesy drawl in Crash and Burn. Rick Rubin’s influence can plainly be heard in his laid back Neil Young-esque delivery and it plainly benefits this new direction these musicians appear to be taking following their recent hiatus from recording and each other. That’s not to say that earlier material is avoided tonight.
Private Lawns is gorgeous and Julia’s trumpet solo demonstrates the duo’s penchant for the unexpected in their songs. This continues with their rendition of Olivia Newton-John’s You’re the One That I Want. It is occasionally understandable where comparisons to a more saccharine Laurel Canyon sound come from, based on the album version of this song. Tonight’s interpretation is apocalyptic. Initially delicate in delivery, Julia Stone erupts alarmingly as lights flare intensely around her. Demonic in her claim that “you’re the one that I want”, she is eventually exorcised by the crowd as they gently calm her with their “oo, oo ooo’s”. It is a visually and aurally thrilling moment which continues with equally eerie versions of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and The National’s Bloodbuzz Ohio. The duo could certainly not be charged with delivering a set that sagged in the middle. After these explosive pleasures the evening enters the final third, focusing on more recent and popular material from the previous two albums. This provides Angus with his finest moment. Yellow Brick Road develops from it’s conventional acoustic origins to become a sprawlingly fuzzy epic that compliments the doom-laden lyrics. Next it’s Julia’s turn to enjoy another turn in the spotlight. And the Boys possesses a more sun-kissed demeanor, although the lyrics still seem wrapped up in a tale, which is darker than it appears to be.
Highlight of the night comes in the form of the addictive Heart Beats Slow. Possessing a funereal rhythm appearing to head towards some kind of dark, undisclosed judgement, the track allows the duo to really perform together for the first time tonight. Brother and sister compliment each other equally in the downbeat tone, and a hypnotic spell is cast over the Manchester crowd.
Up until Rick Rubin’s involvement, Angus and Julia were happy to pursue individual endeavors. Tonight’s performance vindicates this intervention. Based on tonight’s performance, Angus and Julia Stone are not the Laurel Canyon plagiarists they are often made out to be.
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Review by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto