December feels an appropriate time for Eliza Carthy to take the massed ranks of the Wayward band on a celebratory tour. On a Friday night in a cavernous church in Brighton, with a big Jesus suspended overhead and a socking great tree behind them, the group wasted no time in getting the Christmas party started.
The punchy songs from this year’s Big Machine album sound simply enormous live, powered by dozen or so musicians. The Fitter’s Song, Devil in the Woman and Jack Warrell’s all feature in an arresting opening section, demonstrating the group’s thrilling power and precision – clattering drums as a counterpoint to a thrilling melodic crescendo in the tune set.
There’s barely time to catch breath before the bespoke shanty Great Grey Back gives the crowd something to sing along with, and the brass section chimes in on the glossy, glamorous Fade & Fall – a song that in a fair and just world would be soundtracking the opening credits of the next James Bond film.
Lucy Farrell’s distinctive backing vocals provide a chirpy counterpoint to Carthy’s rich and expressive lead, while Sam Sweeney steps in to take the place of duet partner Teddy Thompson on the almost overwhelmingly swooning Hug You Like a Mountain. Sweeney makes an excellent vocal stand-in, and since his Bellowhead days clearly hasn’t lost his love of jumping about and leading the string section in some silly – and fun – choreography.
The Waywards cover some pre-Big Machine ground, too: Gallant Hussar is introduced with a tongue-in-cheek, apologetic cheerfulness, while Mr Walker is more unambiguously joyous. Carthy is as dextrous and expressive on the fiddle as ever, but the arrangements are designed for the group, so individual ‘star’ moments are rare. Put another way, the band is as good as she is, which is quite remarkable.
And while the night’s fun, there’s time for reflection, too. Introducing You Know Me – a bright and bouncy welcome to refugees – Carthy makes a powerful speech about fear, truth and decency that earns an ovation from the audience. And a devastating version of the ever-relevant I Wish That The Wars Were All Over offers a powerful reminder of the many personal miseries invoked by conflict. Carthy’s voice soars here, and it’s worth highlighting Dave Delarre’s contribution, too. He can (and does) crank out great, rocky solos, but on this one he’s busy at the guitar to create a subtle, quieter and innovative backing.
While the music is of course the main thing, there are extra touches that make a difference, too: the constant eye contact between the band members is particularly noticeable, showing that they’re communicating, concentrating, working hard. Even the join-my-cult dress code and splashes of make-up give the group a visual identity that makes you want to be in the gang.
At the centre of it all, Carthy is masterful. Sometimes lost in the music, bending her back in a passionate dance or leading her bandmates off the stage to engage with the audience (during one instrumental number she actually sits down in the front row – next to me, as it happens, and says hi – certainly a highlight). It’s an element of confidence and performance that’s sometimes absent at folk gigs, and it helps everything feel special.
Folk people, Eliza Carthy is basically our Beyoncé – and she’s in thrilling form, knocking it so far out of the park that the park becomes but a distant memory. If you can go and see her live – check out her dates here – then do it. Do it now!