…the band’s anthem of sorts Heroes Never Die takes the place by storm … as there are times when one could swear that the roof actually attempts to levitate itself a couple of inches, just to tip its hat
All photos: Chris Walkden
This one seemed a long time coming – a feeling clearly shared by many of the crowd tonight who, having braved the first snow of the winter to congregate on the Midlands, welcomed Mostly Autumn back to the stage like veritable conquering heroes. And how could they not really, as the band had been on something of a roll, touring their superb White Rainbow album when Covid hit and put all bets off. Refusing to rest on their laurels and simply resume that touring cycle after the surreal times of the past 18 months however, they also used the pandemic and lockdown experience to craft the conceptual Graveyard Star album, which was clearly always going to feature prominently in tonight’s show. But let’s step back a little…
First, however, in something of an unusual occurrence for a Mostly Autumn show in recent times, there is the matter of a support band – in this case actually a duo, in the shape of ‘Ambient electronica’ purveyors Monkey Trial. That description is actually something of a misnomer, as it conjures up images of ‘New Age’ noodling which could not be further than the truth. Yes, this is meandering mood music, but with the highly percussive keyboards of Clive Mollart married to the smoothly textural guitar work of Shaun Bailey, there is more than a hint of Hawkwind/Gong space rock in amongst the Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream touchstones, with Steve Hillage’s work with System 7 also being evoked. They go down rather well, and clearly have an audience here who are happy to get on their trippy wavelength and go along for the ride – nary a hint of ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ impatience in sight here! If there is a criticism it would be the tendency for their pieces to sometimes rather fizzle out as they come to an end, which works fine on record for this type of material, but in the live environment a little climactic ‘flourish’ here and there would be likely to elicit a greater ovation to my mind. A minor niggle however, with an act who impressed me much more than I really expected.
Opening a show with your most recent material is always a gamble, as it requires trust in the audience that they will either already know the songs or at least will be receptive to hearing them for the first time before getting any older favourites unveiled. Fortunately, this faith is more than backed up by the hugely positive response to no less than seven tracks from the Graveyard Star record, proving that the band know their audience who conversely trust the band’s decisions and choices. This symbiotic relationship has been a defining feature of Mostly Autumn shows for a long time now, and is one of the things which makes their shows always a memorable event. In this case, the choice is even more bold as they open with the lengthy, multi-faceted title track from the album, but it pays off handsomely. I am sure that people who frequent their shows will know what I mean when I speak of those ‘Mostly Autumn Moments’, which occur when something happens – be it a big, dramatic Bryan Josh lead guitar line or a soaring vocal from Olivia Sparnenn-Josh – when an already impressive song suddenly kicks up a gear and the whole room seems to lift. The first of those moments comes as the majestic guitar solo in this track kicks off, and the tone is irrevocably set for the evening from that precise moment. This is going to be good.
All of the seven tracks are well received, but apart from that opener, clear highlights have to be a superb This Endless War, the ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ infectious ambience of Skin Of Mankind, and the emphatically anthemic quality of the similarly-titled Spirit Of Mankind (there are a few minor sound issues early on, but these are thankfully quickly resolved). Following this lengthy chunk of the new album, however, comes an ecstatically-received bonus in the shape of the first performance for some considerable time of the classic Passengers. Probably still identified by many with former frontwoman Heather Findlay, who performed it regularly for years, Olivia makes the song entirely her own as it is greeted rapturously like the return of an old friend. It creates a moment which is hard to follow, but the band do just that by finishing the first set with more than a flourish, performing a lengthy, full rendition of Mother Nature. As Bryan announces a 25-minute break, the night is in the proverbial bag already. Effectively, it would take an own goal of unprecedented proportions for this lead to be let slip – and you know that a band of this calibre aren’t going to do that.
One of the joys of watching Mostly Autumn perform regularly over the years is the fact that you simply never know what kind of show you are going to get. There was a time when you could probably name 75% of the setlist before one of their shows, but nowadays you would be lucky to predict more than two or three with any degree of certainty. This comes partly from having such a wide back catalogue to draw from, of course – but also from a willingness and even a hunger to shake things up and take chances. Put it this way, Kiss and Deep Purple have large back catalogues, but you wouldn’t have a brain-turning struggle to write their probable setlists before the event! When Mostly Autumn play, you might get a show with some of the Celtic-influenced material heavily featured. You might well get a show revolving around the big, grandly ‘prog’ epics such as Questioning Eyes and Evergreen. Tonight is different as both of those reliable warhorses are left in the stable in favour of a decidedly heavier selection of material in the second half. This is a show that highlights one thing: that the 2021 incarnation of Mostly Autumn can rock, rock heavily and rock powerfully. As Bryan goes into a familiar-sounding riff to open the second part, I am momentarily fooled into thinking it might be Return Of The King, well, ‘returning’ after a long time away. In fact it is the Sight Of Day track Tomorrow Dies, given a turbo-charged upgrade and flung out with utterly joyous abandon. A drum pattern which again sells me a dummy and hoodwinks me into thinking it might be going into Skin On Skin, heralds a trip to the Josh And Co Transylvania album via In For The Bite, before two tracks from the White Rainbow album – Western Skies and Into The Stars – are given another powerful overhaul, possessing far more heft and swing than the album versions. Not better or worse, but pleasingly different, which is what the doctor very much ordered for a live performance.
At this point we are starting to hit the home straight, with Chris Johnson’s sole song of the evening in the shape of his Sight Of Day highlight, the atmospheric and brooding Changing Lives – once again given a much heavier arrangement than the original. The band are in the zone at this point, kicking out the jams and loving it. Another trip back through the years now gives us the old favourite Close My Eyes, which never ever disappoints, followed by the sole selection from the Dressed In Voices concept album, Olivia’s sublime House On The Hill – surely one of the most powerful evocations of childhood nostalgia you could hope to find. The Spirit Of Autumn Past gives the crowd another hugely well received old favourite before – and this was a surprise to me, not knowing the setlist details beforehand – the lengthy title track from White Rainbow to finish the set proper. Slightly rearranged in one or two places, and moving brilliantly between tender melancholy and more big, heavy power, this tribute to the band’s beloved late colleague Liam Davison makes for an exceptional set closer.
They were always going to come back for more, of course, and this is the point where you really could predict the setlist, as of course the band’s anthem of sorts Heroes Never Die takes the place by storm. Plenty of those ‘Mostly Autumn Moments’ here, as there are times when one could swear that the roof actually attempts to levitate itself a couple of inches, just to tip its hat! Following that is Forever And Beyond, which has been the encore closer ever since the tragic passing of Liam, and leaves a lump in many a throat without doubt. That’s not quite all, however, as it’s nearly December, there’s snow outside, and so we get the first annual Mostly Autumn tribute to the season, in the shape of the download-only song from Christmas 2020, For Everyone At Christmastime. There are no Greg Lake or Pogues songs brought out just yet, but nobody expected it, and nobody feels remotely short-changed by what has been a superb return to this popular venue.
It has often been said by fans of that band that ‘there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert’. Well, that’s as may be, and I have no reason to doubt them, but it would be equally true to transpose that sentiment from San Francisco to the UK and confidently claim that, even after 25 years or so, there is likewise nothing like a Mostly Autumn concert. The audience, as ever, feel like a bunch of friends getting together for a communal celebration with the best ‘house band’ in the land, and that’s a very special atmosphere that you simply cannot manufacture. Here’s to the next time. And the next time. And the time after that. Forever and beyond…