April 2014

A review of… Heather Leigh + Bridget Hayden + Sophie Cooper, Inkfolk, Hebden Bridge, 30th March 2014

There’s something elegantly dissident about three childless women playing a show in the lesbian capital of England on Mother’s Day. And that elegance is down to the fact that the gender bias here tonight at Hebden Bridge’s Inkfolk, a cute cubby hole of a venue nestled in the basement of an old mill overlooking the Rochdale Canal, feels purely incidental and as if such a highlighting of it as this might even be considered disrespectful by the musicians involved. Because, for anyone familiar with the work of Sophie Cooper, Bridget Hayden and Heather Leigh, it’s plain that the only unifying factor here that’s really worthy of note is not their sexual categorisation, but their stalwart presence within a subculture that, after a brief fling with mainstream recognition (culminating, perhaps, in the Thurston Moore curated Nightmare Before Christmas festival in December 2006), is once again so unfashionable that its survival is as inspiring to witness as that of the snow leopard. The fact that each of them sports just the one Y-chromosome bears no impact at all on the audience, each member of which is here for nothing more than a rare fix of blasted, celebratory and unrestrained electric string sound carried out with an aplomb scarcely witnessed even within Britain’s larger metropolises, let alone within a sleepy little bourgeois-boho backwater like Hebden. But, intentional or otherwise, you can’t deny the dissidence.

First to hit the stage, which is partially obscured by a number of large metal pillars, is Stoke-born Sophie Cooper, a resident of neighbouring Todmorden (to Hebden Bridge, what white pepper is to black) whose somewhat slim résumé belies the weight of her presence on the scene and the sense of lasting affection she immediately engenders on contact with right-thinking humanity. Her nerves are palpable and her bashfulness refreshingly real as she turns, again and again between songs, to the sound engineer who has set-up directly behind her in what appears to be some kind of loony grade attention seeking, to check that it ‘sounds alright’. It’s almost as if they’re collaborating on the set as Cooper’s barely restrained feedback slips out of control over and over and the engineer twiddles the gain pot on his desk to bring her back within the realm of song. Charming to the last, with vocals slipping wonderfully in and out of tune, Cooper’s simple psychedelic songs bring to mind the ditties of ’70s children’s TV (although filtered through a wave of ’orrible distortion and gorgeous phaser) and ’90s indie-psych queen Azalia Snail in equal measure. Remember when the Rolling Stones tried to play the blues and ended up making Exile On Main Street? It’s kind of like that, but the root source is more like MV&EE or Christina Carter and the result more like a roll in a bath of rainbow bubblegum.

Bridget Hayden has a lot to live up to. Her performance at the Colour Out of Space festival in Brighton in November 2013 was not only mesmerising (a crowd of 300 sat, rapt, in ripples around her, as if attending to some guru) but an utterly necessary blast of Bardo Pond-esque neo-blues that came as a huge relief amidst a near-overload of sound poetry and other vocal blurt that weekend. And it’s no small relief when she delivers her first spontaneous composition tonight, either. The same songs in a different setting, performed after COoS, would have seemed mere shadows of a beautiful memory. So she abandons them to a wall of layered feedback that recalls the paradoxically harsh tonal warmth of Hototogisu, where overtones and undertones coalesce through the ever-benevolent speakers of a Fender Twin to submerge the senses into some kind of watery Valhalla. Although the P.A. is a little on the quiet side, hindering the ecstatic moment to a degree, the immersion into Hayden’s fried mindscape is impossible to resist and only broken by the early cropping of each piece, which, for me, could have gone on forever and ever and ever and ever… #fourparallellivesnecessary

There’s a no more exclamatory punctuation to an evening of electric string mangling than a set by Texan pedal steel player Heather Leigh Murray. At over six feet tall with bottle blonde locks, wry grin, classy wardrobe and speaking voice that sends wallflowers wilting into the dust, she contradicts the cliché that people who make fucked-up music should be self-hating aesthetic understaters with body odour. And it’s a modus operandi that really works to help elevate her music out of the squalor of the anti-formal basement blast-offs that dominate this scene and place it within the quasi-celestial realm forged by chanteuses of decades gone by (Nico and Catherine Ribeiro spring most obviously to mind). Murray’s voice is an acquired taste – I only say this because I’ve witnessed first-hand people balking at its confrontational presence – but it’s one that this audience has most certainly acquired and you could hear a pin drop during the occasional breathy pauses that break-up the otherwise relentless eardrum prodding of the pedal steel as Murray stabs again and again at the volume pedal. We are treated to all the dynamic range of a normally very rigid instrument played, as it is, wildly overdriven and with a near-reckless abandon on the slide. As the set winds to a close, with its only non-distorted piece, Murray zoning in on the same spiritual source that gave Alice Coltrane her piano style, she brings the volume gradually down to zero and her voice catches in her throat as it ebbs ever further away from audibility. She begins to pack her things away. The audience reserves its applause in expectance of something else. They don’t know quite what. But then, all the best stories end obliquely and without explanation.

Written by Nick Mitchell

Here’s a picture of me with a good guitar face on!

Photo by Rob Lycett
Photo by Rob Lycett

Coming up

My next show is at The Penthouse, Manchester. It’s an excellent venue and I’m looking forward to playing there again. The venue got a cool review on Manchester’s The Skinny which gives  a bit of info about the place.

A new album is being worked on and not that far from completion! Hopefully it’ll be out for my mini tours over the summer, will keep anyone reading this blog informed.

Ok, take care, S x

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