Fans of Emily Portman will be used to seeing and hearing her work with long-time trio partners Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton by now – both on her own albums and in partnership with Alasdair Roberts in The Furrow Collective. But for this tour – her last for the foreseeable future with Newton, who is to focus more on her solo career and The Shee (though they’ll still work together as Furrows) – Portman has expanded her live line-up to create The Coracle Band.
Joining the trio are fiddler Sam Sweeney, percussionist Pete Flood and guitarist Matthew Boulter. A deeper, richer sound is immediately evident on opener Darkening Bell, on which Sweeney and Farrell conjure a brooding backdrop for Newton’s harp to skitter over, while Boulter’s pedal steel provides dramatic wails and Portman sings, inspired by a cave in North Wales, of aching eye sockets and jagged rocks. It’s a persuasive and intriguing start.
Seed Stitch is perhaps a little hesitant, but the band brush off any jitters with Nightjar. From its arresting opening image – “how your hair came away in my daughter’s dimpled hand” – it is completely captivating: woozy and lush. You can hear Sweeney’s personality in his fiddle playing on Brink of June, and the band click further as Portman announces of a trio of songs related to the woods. Flood gives Eye of Tree a pulsing beat, while Borrowed and Blue is a thought-provoking response to The Cruel Mother. Perhaps it’s the link with nature that inspiring them, but magic is happening!
The band kicks up another gear after the interval. Flood and Boulter give it some welly on Sunken Bells, which feels slightly trippy, before Tongue-Tied lurches deliriously into 1970s psychedelia. The nightmarish red light the band find themselves bathed in feels weirdly appropriate.
Coracle’s title track is astonishing, and it’s tonight’s showstopper. Portman is great on the subject of motherhood, and there’s an emotional vulnerability in even sharing the song’s subject matter – that her baby was placed in an incubator for three days following her birth. The performance is beautiful. Sweeney, Farrell and Newton turn it into a heartbreaking string piece, which adds poignancy to Portman’s sorrowful lament of “empty cradle arms” and “lungs filled up with ocean brine”. It’s an honest, revealing high point.
Portman’s voice sometimes has a childlike quality, and as such is ideally suited to a creepy fairytale. Stick Stock, with its horrible “neat meat pies with crusts of gold” is a classic of the genre. Newton and Farrell’s harmonies – not for the first or last time in the evening – are pitch perfect. Portman and Newton’s version of The Two Sisters, for example, is sensitive and constantly changing, though it still provides the requisite chill demanded by the story.
The show picks up pace towards its conclusion, with the bright banjo-led Hatchlings and the trippy, jazzy Bones and Feathers going at quite a clip, before High Tide – inspired by a story about ‘the Mersey Mermaid’ – brings matters to a majestic close.
Portman is a terrifically literate songwriter – introductions to songs are littered with references to books, poems, mythology and magical realism. Things will undoubtedly sound different without Newton on board, but this bigger band is certainly a success. You can be sure that whatever Portman does next, it will make fascinating listening.
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