The Staves + Paul Thomas Saunders, The Navigation, Nottingham 6/12/11

A little delayed by work and Christmas, here’s my full review of this gig. Parts of the below formed a piece I wrote for Ryan’s Smashing Life, written as a preview of the Staves’ support of the Civil Wars next month in the States.

A new venue is always cause for celebration, albeit sometimes with caution. The Navigation is a pub by the canal and isn’t really new at all, but is under new management and they’re booking music. They’re also playing host to what smelled like a pretty remarkable burger-making operation. Note to self: next time, don’t bother having dinner before you go.

It’s probably a good thing I can’t remember the name of the first act, a local support, because his Jeff Buckley impression was so painstakingly, studiously crafted that to watch it fall so inevitably short was really quite uncomfortable to watch. It should be obvious to anyone that it’s a futile thing to attempt, but it’s also about 15 years late.

Moving swiftly on, the first two proper acts up was Paul Thomas Saunders. By way of a disclaimer, or at least some background, I should say that I’ve known Paul a long time. We went to school together for a while, and he was in the better of the two teenage rock bands that formed around that time. We played at some of the same gigs. I then had the good fortune to end up in Leeds at the time his previous band reached their peak. It could be said I’m fairly au fait with his oeuvre, if you’ll excuse the rampant francophony of that sentence.

With that taken into account, it’s all the more astonishing that he managed to deliver a set that was at once surprising and familiar to me. Above all it was impressive. During songs Paul and band oozed confidence, overcoming the challenge of the sound, not to mention a few talkative audience members, to deliver their carefully crafted slices of ethereal pop.

Paul has assembled a stellar band of sonic magicians. A guitarist who plays his effects pedals like another instrument, layering textures and fading chords into complex walls of delay, aided by keyboardist Kate’s Wurlitzer chords and strong backing vocals. Long-time drummer Ali leant power and poise to the arrangements, giving them huge dynamic range.

With this trio behind him, Paul is free to sing, something he is really rather good at. His vocal range is huge, extended by a smooth, powerful falsetto that lends itself to the dreamy, echo-drenched songs that populate his set, typified by Appointment in Samarra, below.

The Staves

Our headliners took the stage around 9pm.

I first encountered The Staves supporting The Civil Wars at the Union Chapel Islington in September. I wrote at the time that

Given the unreserved seating at the Union Chapel I was never going to dawdle on my way to the Northern Line but when a music journalist friend said that The Staves were “the best new band in the country”, I made doubly sure I was there on time. Hundreds of people were queueing round the block at 7pm, and we were not disappointed. The Staves, a trio of sisters, appear to have taken the ethereal close harmony stylings of Fleet Foxes and done something distinctly English with them. Stunningly precise and accurate singing, charmingly humble chat and elegant writing. Their debut album, produced by Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year. I’ll be queueing up.

In essence, not a great deal has changed since then. With no Grade I-listed venue to add gravitas and reverb, it wasn’t as dramatic a performance. Instead, we were treated to an intimate show with plenty of chat.

The Staves are Camilla, Jessica and Emily, sisters from Watford. Conveniently blessed with complementary vocal ranges, they sing in close harmony, accompanied by Jessica’s simple-but-effective Paul Simon-like fingerpicked guitar.

Whilst on first listen they belong somewhere in the Fleet Foxes/Midlake/Low Anthem ballpark, seeing them live reveals that they’ve taken these ethereal close-harmony stylings and done something distinctly English with them. Unlike the Mumford/Marling-type response to that particular US nu-folk pack, they’ve done something that appears both genuine and natural, powerful but never forced. They are wise old heads on young shoulders, and if you’re ready to spot them you can hear the influence of Simon & Garfunkel or Crosby, Stills & Nash in their harmonies and Joni Mitchell in their phrasing. They sing with an awareness of the power they wield, more knowing than naive.

They also sing with astonishing precision, seemingly able to start and stop singing together, moving from solos or duets to full three-part harmony without cues, snapping suddenly into unison for a line before  swooping gloriously back into lush, full harmony again.

Their Mexico EP is out on December 11th:

Their debut album, the first ever collaboration between father and son producers Glyn and Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year.

They support The Civil Wars on tour in the US in January 2012, followed by more UK dates in February in support of Michael Kiwinuka.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that I managed to write an entire piece about them without once mentioning cunnilingus. Unlike the Guardian.


One response

  1. This is a good example to the uninitiated the full breadth of the guy s musical prowess, combining melody and harmony with easy and fluid grace.

    January 17, 2012 at 5:37 pm

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