Friday, 14 February 2014

Gig Review: Pilot Whale Research, St Mary’s, Olveston

Another week, another gig in a church.  This time it’s St Mary The Virgin in Olveston, South Gloucestershire.

“Bring me in, I am cold….”

And so begins the performance by Pilot Whale Research.  The rector has introduced them, implying that the significance of the backdrop of a baby panda will be explained.  I don’t know what a rector is, or what his role might be, but he sort of seems to be in charge.
The church isn’t like those of my childhood: for a start, there’s a makeshift bar selling beer and wine.  Also, it’s CofE, and I went to Catholic Church.

(One of the significant differences between the Catholic Church and the CofE is that the CofE is a kind of enterprising organisation, which makes money – they own property and employ people.  Whereas the Catholic Church is more like a monarchy that never bothers itself with the sordid business of money, especially when lecturing others on how to treat the poor, from a pulpit made of solid gold.)

And to complement the bar, they’ve also got toilets – right there in the church.  This is another surprise to me.  Maybe it’s normal these days for churches to have toilets, I don’t know.
Still, it’s suitably cold, like every church in the entire world.  This is so that worshippers may feel the presence of God.  Or because they were mostly built a thousand years ago, I forget which. 

This is somehow the perfect place for secular musicians to play to a local audience.  The acoustics are superb, like in every church in the entire world.  This is so that worshippers may feel the presence of God.  Or because they were mostly built a thousand years ago, I forget which. 

The reason it’s perfect in this case is not just because of the acoustics.  There are also themes around redemption and forgiveness in the lyrics, relating to personal experience.  As with the best songwriters, these are dealt with gently, so that it evokes empathy rather than pity - and when something is more direct, it’s disarming like it’s supposed to be.
This is true in general of Dan Leaver’s songs – one of the best songwriters around, in my humble opinion.  And just to declare personal interest, he’s also a friend of many years – as are the rest of the band.

“There’s another world out there – one where people get on.”

Guitarist Jay gets a solo, just the one in two sets – it’s a subtle and understated performance, all about the quality of the songs and sound, rather than technical prowess (not that they don’t have that, mind). 
There’s a beautiful, stripped-down version of Yazoo’s ‘Only You’, which reminds me of the old maxim about pop songs: if you can sing it accompanied with only an acoustic guitar and it still sounds good, it’s a great song.  It really is a brilliantly simple song.

And to end the first set, Dan declares:
“There’s no significance to the panda, by the way, it’s just a panda.”

There’s an interval, where parishioners come to tell the band how much they’re enjoying it, and I head for the bar with my Dad.  I’m back in a church in South Gloucestershire with my parents, on a Saturday night.
Living the dream.

“These waves are like a mother’s arms –
Against the law of diminishing returns”

It’s a parish affair: there are people here from Olveston itself, of course, and Tockington, Old Down and even the neighbouring towns of Alveston and Thornbury.
(If I were ever to do a stand-up comedy performance in the USA, where every single comedian spends at least the first half of their set talking about their ethnicity, I would start with the different pronunciations of Olveston and Alveston.  “Anyone in from South Gloucestershire?  Yeah?  You know how some people say ‘All-veston’ and ‘Oh-veston’, but others pronounce them both ‘Awl-veston’…..there’s been some right bloody mix-ups over the years, I can tell you ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  Now, I’m white and from southern England, so I expect you all to bow down before me etc.”)

The rebellious part of me wanted to steal all the alcohol and throw up at the back.  But I rarely (if ever) did that type of thing 20 years ago, when it would have been rebellious, maybe even shocking.  Now it would just be sad, people would shake their heads and ask if I was going through a hard time and suggest that I talk to someone about it:  no fun.

“She went to Lytham St Anne’s…”

I’m being flippant about all this (it’s just my way), but it really is a beautiful gig.  The brothers are joined for the second set by their brother-in-law Mike (also an excellent singer-songwriter with The Short Life Of Gracie) on keys, adding atmospheric touches to the melancholic songs.  He’s also responsible for the projections behind the band, which feature scenes of the lanes around the area, and complement the atmosphere perfectly.

(The lads tell me at the break they were accosted by the local bobbies as they made these films, after police received a call describing “youths acting suspiciously”.  I don’t know what constitutes “suspicious behaviour” round these parts (I live in the city these days), but I can’t imagine they were doing anything particularly threatening or unusual.  Also, I don’t know exactly where the cut-off lands for describing someone as a “youth”, but I expect it’s under 35.  Still, I suppose it’s all relative…)

I leaf through my free copy of the parish magazine ‘Meeting Point’.
There’s a (surprisingly thorough) biography of the band’s founder members, brothers Dan and Jay.
Noting the brothers’ musical history, the article describes grunge as “a sort of cross between punk and rock”.  It also tells how the boys “had very extensive collections of vinyl records and they attended live music gigs in Bristol.”  It also mentions their previous bands, which include Supergrover, Iron Botham, Box of Frogs, The Bears and The Horfield Cardinal Assault ("none of the band names means anything")

“Oh, I was thrown into a trance – I love the way you sing and dance.”

They’re actually playing on the altar.  Churches have come a long way over the years, but it’s what’s the same about them that’s moved me tonight: it’s music.  As I said in my review of the “Music for Maggie” gig at St George’s a few weeks ago, churches are built for worship – and, like every church in the entire world, this one has lush acoustics that suit a beautiful, yearning voice such as the one we’ve heard here tonight.  This is so that worshippers may feel the presence of God.  Or because they were mostly built a thousand years ago, I forget which. 

But, again, it’s more like the folk shows we used to have in the church hall.  I’m not religious, as you might know if you’ve heard any of my songs, or ever talked to me about anything at all, but I’m starting to get over my youthful disdain for the organisational aspect of churches…they have, to say the least, a chequered history, but in essence, they are buildings to house and represent a community, and in this case they have opened their doors to those with no religious affiliation, and I admire that – even if it is just about getting bodies through the door and bums on seats. 
My bum is quite happy to be on this seat tonight.

Clayton Blizzard

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