The West End Centre doesn’t feel like it usually does when you go to a folk gig there. For a start, there aren’t any chairs. And rather than the usual two sets, a support band (the able, versatile Flight Brigade) warms up the crowd. While you can buy real ale at the bar, Folk Witness feels oddly compelled to drink lager from a plastic glass: it’s an indie-rock kind of a night.
“We’re False Lights and we play traditional music”, says co-frontman Jim Moray, after the six-piece have taken the stage. Drummer Sam Nadel strikes up a beat and the band kick off with probably their heaviest song, Skewbold. It’s quite the statement of intent: fast and furious, dominated by growly rock guitar and coming to a sudden stop a whisker over the three-minute mark. It’s a bit tricky to make out the words, but judging by the massive grins sported by everyone in sight, no-one cares.
In fact, the loud (and it is, gloriously so) rock element of the False Lights folk-rock idea never again drowns out the folk bit. Perhaps as a result of having tuned in during the opening number, it’s easy to follow the lyrics for the rest of the night. This is a credit to the singing of Moray and Sam Carter, who alternate vocal duties and joyfully indulge their passion for a selection of beautiful electric guitars (though Moray frequently moves over to a complicated-looking keyboard/laptop/Kaoss pad set-up, too). Melodeon player Nick Cooke, bassist Barn Stradling and fiddler Tom Moore feature strongly in the well-balanced mix, adding body and depth to the sound.
A rock club setting suits a bawdy singalong perfectly, and Carter takes the group through the salty Maid of Australia with glee. Equally cheerful are the Moray-led Banks of Newfoundland and Tyne of Harrow (about a highwayman called, a little unromantically, Alan). Carter and Moray prove excellent foils for each other – their voices work nicely in harmony and Carter’s penchant for shapenote and gospel provides the group with a wealth of material to rework. Moray’s technical wizardry is evident, too – on the innovatively arranged Wife of Ushers Well, for example.
The crowd play their part. Carter rather sweetly says he hopes the show “hasn’t been too punishing”, but tutting purists have stayed away, leaving the room full of people willing to whoop and holler – essential for this music to work in a live setting. Having said that, as with most folk crowds, a reverent silence falls before the next song begins. The perfect combination!
Another a folk tradition is the inclusion of a song on the subject of death, drolly introduced by Carter. The bluntly titled Oh Death, strangely enough, turns out to be rather a funky affair – another expectation confounded. The final three songs exemplify False Lights’ versatility: the main set ends with the lovely, funereal-yet-uplifting Crossing the Bar, before the band invade the audience for the first part of an inclusive encore – a warm-hearted singalong then a return to the stage for what Moray calls “your last chance to rock out”. The resultant hornpipe neatly balances balls-out rock with dextrous musicianship – as much of the set has.
Outside, people are drawing comparisons with groups including The Wonder Stuff, Radiohead and The Decemberists. But whoever you’re reminded of, it doesn’t sound like traditional music ever has before. Modern, relevant and skilfully executed: this is music to get gigantically excited about.
The False Lights tour continues. Click here for the full list of dates. (And then go to the gig nearest you.) To see more of Emma Goymer’s photos of the show, check out the Folk Witness Facebook page. Give us a like while you’re there, and don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter, too