Descending the stairs of the Soup Kitchen this evening, I realise it’s received a bit of a make-over since my last visit. I use the term ‘make-over’ in the loosest possible way because the Northern Quarter venue has never been blessed with the more pleasing aesthetic qualities some of Manchester’s other small venues can brag about. What it lacks in charm however it more than makes up for with its innate ability to allow a band to intimately connect with their fans. Portland’s Blind Pilot seem to recognise this tonight. Lead singer and songwriter Israel Nebeker informs the crowd that they’ve been touring pretty much non-stop for a decade and the Soup Kitchen is without a doubt the rockiest rock venue they have ever had the pleasure of performing in. This dark basement venue is certainly dingy, but once again provides the stage for an incredibly affecting evening of music that concludes with the musical highlight of the year so far.
Warming up the early-arrivers are Brighton quintet Martha Gunn. Taking their name from a famous Brighton ‘dipper’ from the eighteenth century, the band are built around Abi Woodman’s robust vocals and songs like Heaven draw heavily from seventies inspirations which swirl tenaciously amongst the rest of their songs, bringing to mind the famous valley sound of seventies California as well as a more home-grown prog-rock quality, making their contribution to the evening a thoroughly entertaining one.
Blind Pilot perform and record in the States as a sextet but the logistical issues that arise from touring overseas (two of the band are married with children) mean that the Oregon natives perform this evening as a trio. Accompanying Nebeker are the hugely talented Ryan Dobrowski on drums and equally dextrous Luke Ydstie on the upright bass. On record, Israel’s affecting songwriting is the focus, presented amidst simple acoustic melodies and enriched by delightful musical textures provided by the band. This evening, with the fabric of many of the songs altered to accommodate the reduced line-up, you could be forgiven for thinking that this would detract from the overall impact of the performance. Thankfully, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Early track Go On, Say It shimmers on record, with a delightful character provided by a vibraphone in particular. This evening it is still a delight, but these pleasures are derived from other sources. Nebeker’s vocals are a mellifluous joy and it becomes apparent that the crowd are providing their own backing track as they hum and sing the choral melodies that are usually present on record. Moon at Dawn follows and its acoustic fragility is heartbreaking. The audience are transfixed, swaying with the melody, providing their own subtle backing track to Israel’s heartfelt vocals.
It’s been over a year since the stunning third album And Then Like Lions was released, so the promotional duties of the tour are potentially reduced, allowing the band to revisit many highlights off the debut and sophomore efforts. For many, Oviedo signifies the moment the love affair with Blind Pilot began. Hearing track one from the first album this evening, stripped back and intimately presented, we all fall in love once again. The lack of horns changes the dynamic but the emotional inflection which Israel Nebeker is blessed with ensures we’re all swept up in the melancholy sentiment of the song once again. It’s utterly irresistible stuff which is only enhanced by the delicious renditions of Umpqua Rushing and Don’t Doubt, but we’re also treated to an unexpected delight due to a broken guitar string. As Nebeker fixes the problem Luke Ydstie performs an impromptu and completely thrilling Tom Waits song that is in danger of getting the loudest cheer of the night.
A potent cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s King of Carrot Flowers keeps proceedings suitably unpredictable but it is what comes next that transcends everything before it. The trio step down from the stage and Israel informs us all that we’re going to end on a sweet note. Three Rounds and a Sound is the title track off the debut record and the song’s tender fragility is as beautiful as an Oregon orchid, but this evening’s unplugged performance eclipses even this description as Israel bares his soul in this most intimate of venues, gently accompanied by the entire room who sing every word back to this humble and completely brilliant band.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto