December 13, 2020

PHOTOS: Howard Rankin

It might seem a strange thing to say, after 2020 seeming to last for an eternity, but it really is astonishing how time flies sometimes. Still synonymous in many people’s minds with Mostly Autumn – the band she fronted for fourteen years – it is astonishing to realise that it is now a full decade since Heather Findlay stepped back from that role in order to concentrate on raising and supporting her family. During that time she has had some great music released (the I Am Snow album and the mantra Vega project with Dave Kerzner to name two), but it is fair to say that her studio recording career has been sporadic over that time. In 2019, however, she returned with the album Wild White Horses – which found her collaborating with Luke Morley from Thunder – and a tour to promote the album and delight fans who had been yearning for more live appearances.

Following the curtailment of all live activity by the unprecedented 2020 pandemic, Heather decided that it would be an opportune time to release a live album from that show, and the result is this double CD set, containing a recording of a typical show on the first disc, with the second containing a mixture of fan recordings and some complementary solo acoustic performances, to go along with the band performance making up the main show. Let’s have a look at what we get, beginning with Disc One…

Heather with guitarist Martin Ledger

The first thing which must be said right away is that this is not an overtly ‘prog’ album. There has always been as much of a folk-rock and simpler melodic quality about Heather’s particular muse, and that shows very much here. It also focuses very much on Heather as she is at this point in her career, with only occasional nods to the past. Mostly Autumn are revisited with Unoriginal Sin and one of her most identifiable songs Caught In A Fold, but there is no sense of resting on any past laurels. Even her ‘signature’ song Shrinking Violet does not get an airing, as we are very much looking to the present day. Mantra Vega is represented by Lake Sunday and Heather also plunders her past for the excellent Black Rain, but otherwise this is almost all taken up with the whole twelve songs of the Wild White Horses album. There is a folky, acoustic backbone to some of the material here, but also a surprising country and even blues-rock influence elsewhere. The overriding feeling here is that this is an artist acknowledging her roots while very much forging her own identity, and her voice is strong and distinctive enough to do that with ease. Those roots are explicitly acknowledged by the version of Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman, presented in a medley format with a dash of Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks for good measure, and it is a triumphant rendering. Indeed, so suited is Heather’s voice for that Stevie Nicks-penned song that it makes one realise just how much of an echo of Nicks’ own vocal timbre can be heard in Heather’s delivery. I will admit, I’d never really thought about that before, but it struck me quite strongly.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Wild White Horses material, this is a great way to catch up with it – the impression is of an artist reaching out to find her own identity over several years, and finally realising it with obvious confidence and consummate ease of delivery. I thought I might miss the older material, but in the end I found that I scarcely noticed the lack of it. Real highlights here include the strong opener Southern Shores, Heather’s lovely tribute to the late Liam Davidson on Here’s To You, the expansive Already Free and the almost-Southern-Rock feel of Wild White Horses itself. The recording quality is nothing short of superb, and captures a tangible live atmosphere as well as making each instrument perfectly balanced and audible – a real trick in itself. Close your eyes, and you could almost be there. It’s a great recording of an excellent show.

The second disc is very much a ‘bonus’, and as such is hit and miss. The bootleg fan recordings are, of course, in no way comparable to the pristine audio delights on the main disc, but on the other hand the German recordings (brilliantly credited as ‘Das Bootleg’!) include a great rendition of the old Odin Dragonfly track Magnolia Half Moon. The highlight of this disc comes towards the end, with a handful of acoustic and solo recordings. A rendition of Firefly from St John’s University Chapel in London is delicately beautiful, while the solo home recording of Here’s To You on just acoustic guitar and vocal is heartbreakingly perfect, and even more of a poignant tribute to Liam than the band version. Finally, there is a recording of a new song, Solitaire, which was omitted from the album, and which rounds things off here in a wholly appropriate and deserved way.

In short, this recording is a nicely balanced combination of the Heather Findlay voice, gift for melody and playful audience interaction that her audience has come to love, allied to a new belief in her own material and direction. It’s almost like a mark in the sand for the next phase of her career, and hopefully we will get the chance to see her treading the boards again very soon. You won’t find a treasure trove of prog rock pomp here, but you will find a set of well-written, well-performed and superbly delivered songs, with just that nod back to the straighter rock edge of Mostly Autumn to carry a note of fireside familiarity. Very, very accomplished.