Acoustic revelry in the music rooms of Palace Green
The setting for the evening could not be better; I’ve never been in the music rooms of Palace Green before, but as soon as you enter you find yourself asking why there aren’t acoustic shows here every week. The old-world feel of the room, with its stone fireplace, exposed beams overhead and arched windows framing the performers, is heightened tonight by hundreds of fairy lights, draped across the mantelpiece and grand pianos on the stage. With gallery seating at the rear, the atmosphere is hushed and focused; an attentive audience await.
First to perform is student Josh Edwards, whose strong vocals land somewhere between the strength of Phil Collins and the tenderness of Damien Rice. Opening with Dylan’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’ sets the bar high both in terms of expectation and performance; a perfect rendition of Cohen’s ‘The Partisan’, replete with French verses, cements the standard. Impressively, Josh’s originals stand out between the covers of titans: ‘The Bank of the Far’, on which he plays turango, manages to still evoke the Celtic feel of the welsh landscape despite the south-American instrument he plays. His set ends on a cover of ‘Back to Black’; it feels a little incongruous but retains an individual spin.
Roo Panes is next to mount the stage. A theology graduate from Exeter, as he later tells me, he sits unassumingly on the low stage, cradling his 12-string. His set begins, the resonant thrum of his open-tuned guitar conveying a sound deeper than one instrument ought to be capable of; opening tracks ‘Mistral’ and ‘Know Me Well’ possess a strong Gaelic feel, slowly building in intensity and feeling from the first note to the last. The set’s tempo slows in the middle, comfortably settling into the spellbound atmosphere as Roo (Andrew, not Rupert as we had speculated) shyly thanks the crowd for their near-intimidating fixation as he performs.
Fourth track ‘Silvermoon’ was a particular highlight; the evocative lyrics and scene-setting conjuring ideas of the night sky and open fields, while the relatively free structure and beat of the song enables the feeling of removal to take wing. Narrative capability is an ability a singer-songwriter should possess, and Roo Panes subtly demonstrates his skill at it here. Saving the more powerful tracks for the end, the bluesier dissonance of ‘I’ll Move Mountains’ lends depth and rhythm to the performance, bringing the set to a dramatic close; thankfully the long “Ahhhhhs” of the chorus, and of other songs, manage to escape the shadow of Mumford and avoid feeling clichéd.
Josh Flowers & the Wild storm the stage, armed with a cello, guitar, blues harp and minimal drum kit. Its pretty clear from foot-stamping, hand-clapping opener ‘Come To My House’ that we’re in for an exhilarating set of country-infused delta-folk bluegrass. It was great to see an act merge aspects and elements of many distinctive styles into a unique blend of influences that still managed, somehow, to work. Beautiful counterpoint cello ought not combine so easily with American-country style vocals, but they made it happen on ‘Archers’, the bass notes shaking the ancient floorboards.
The upper gallery were on their feet by the third song; the entire room up by the fifth at Josh’s behest. The old-school blues feel on ‘Poor Boy Blues’ saw cellist Squiff showcasing his impressive vocal range from atop a chair, eyes screwed shut, foot stamping and head thrown back. The rowdy atmosphere was the perfect setting for a drinking song followed by a track with the audience taught to sing the chorus along with the band, heralding the least tuneful rendition of the night.
The addition of slide guitar to the mix toward the set’s end pulled the sound even further in the direction of the Mississippi delta, with the rising energy of ‘Let Me Be’ collapsing into an impromptu hoedown to its brilliantly layered arrangement. The set ends on another singalong: “I wait for my father to sing to me, like he did when I was young”, cleverly innocent lyrics to close a riotous performance that left an audience breathing heavily and a room filled with grins.