Live at Verve on Monday, 7th March 2011
'The Crow Knows Music' is a relatively new 'Independent Music Company' on the Leeds scene, whose mission statement, according to its creator Daniel Clark, is to quench "the thirst of the city's thirsty thirsty music scene" and to provide "a stable platform for its array of quality unsigned acts". If the gig at Verve on Monday 7th March was anything to go by, Clark is already fulfilling this goal and more. The mood was set perfectly by Verve which has ambience and intimacy in abundance as well as a good acoustic and sound technician.
The first act up was Elmaroe, a musical project masterminded by one man - Liam Stokes. Although Stokes opts for a full band sound on his recordings, he courageously took to the stage armed only with an acoustic guitar. Often such a lack of instrumentation can be boring but I found that Stokes used the guitar's many possibilities as an instrument in very intelligent and creative ways. The first song began with sparse octaves, over which a beautiful melody was sung. The second verse elaborated by introducing beautiful broken chords. Stokes' strength seemed to be in using various musical tools such as dynamics, changes of vocal register, well-placed rests and switching between finger-picking and strumming to create a surprising amount of musical variation which maintained my interest throughout his set.
He was not without error however. Occasionally a clumsy fingering would result in a wrong note, or his voice would falter, resulting in the odd intonation error. However, these very minor technical issues paled into insignificance against his impressive pop songwriting prowess. All the songs were memorable with very expressive vocal melodies and strong chord sequences which flowed brilliantly. He would often play against open strings to create a very warm sound. It is worth noting that Stokes and the soundman put effort into getting a good warm guitar sound, whereas many acoustic guitar players tend to flippantly plug in and play, which costs them dearly when it comes through the PA marred with finger and fret noise.
Next act up was Daniel Clark - the runner of the evening. He also took to the stage with an acoustic guitar but was joined by guitarist Ryan Barry. Clark graciously allowed Barry two solos before playing himself. Barry dazzled the crowd with a virtuoso quasi-Bluegrass guitar solo, followed by a second piece that featured very interesting chords and harmonic movement in places. Kudos to Barry that whilst accompanying Clark, he never allowed his guitar playing to get in the way of his excellent songwriting but instead only complimented and enhanced it.
Clark came on and entertained the crowd with songs whose playfulness reminded me of the charm the Kooks possessed before their commercial success. The chord sequences were quite typical and diatonic but the real marvel of the performance was Clark's extraordinary and expressive voice. I can't really find a good way to describe it. All I can do is recommend that you listen.
After three songs Barry performed another solo in which he played two very independent tunes simultaneously, resulting in contrapuntal excellence and a stunned crowd. The highlights of the set were, for me, a slow tempo cover of MGMT's 'Kids' and Clark's only political song, 'Broken Stones', in which lush 9th chords served as a backdrop to a soulful vocal line with thoughtful lyrics. I found this to be his most memorable song. Also worth a mention is Clark's wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humour.
As members of the crowd quietly discussed how "fantastic" Clark's voice was, final act Sunny Philadelphia took to the stage. This band instantly scored points with me for being sort of named after It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one of my favourite shows. I didn't get chance to ask them whether it was intentional or coincidental however.
This was the first group that made use of a bass guitar and single snare drum in addition to the obligatory vocals and acoustic guitar. This definitely worked well as the tight rhythm section provided the propulsive rhythms and punchy bass tone that really drove these blues and funk-based songs. Unfortunately the mix was rather muddled at first and I couldn't hear the guitar very well, although this was rectified as the set progressed. The singer James Debroy made a charismatic and confident front man. Rightly so, as his singing was emotive and accomplished.
This was also the first band not to stick solely to major and minor keys but included the odd key change and blue note, which was refreshing after the previous two acts which were mostly very diatonic in their choice of notes. The highlight was a song I didn't catch the name of that cultivated a soul feel and was apparently very influenced by Stevie Wonder. The verse featured one of the aforementioned key changes which created tension which was relieved brilliantly in the chorus which was comprised of smooth major and minor 7th chords. I enjoyed the last two songs a great deal. 'Go Slow (Shelter You)' featured beautiful descending guitar fills and use of space and 'Bring It Down' featured spiky dominant 7th chords, jagged rhythms and a semi-walking bass line in the chorus.
At times the smooth vocals were so elegantly delivered and 'nice', they ran the risk of becoming symptomatic of easy listening. I feel if some more earthiness were introduced into the vocal delivery then this very slight risk would disappear entirely.
Overall an excellent night was had by all. The Crow Knows Music nights at Verve, which take place on the first Monday of every month, are a delight for those looking for an intimate acoustic pop gig.
The next one will be Monday 4th April. It is my understanding that another night is starting on Thursday 21st April under The Crow Knows Music name at the larger Call Lane Social venue, which will allow for full band performances.
Wakefield based singer/songwriter supplying the world with pop/alternative tunes