You can clearly tell that the band are glad to be back playing live – there’s a joy and energy on the stage, and the always loud and enthusiastic Citadel crowd feed the fire of the performance throughout the show. It really is no exaggeration to describe this as a triumphant return.
ALL PHOTOS: CHRIS WALKDEN
I have a feeling that tonight’s going to be a good night! There is an atmosphere of anticipation, and even celebration in the audience, ahead of tonight’s show at The Citadel, as Mostly Autumn return after almost exactly 3 years to this much loved and much missed venue. That 2019 show had been the very last gig before the venue’s closure – and at that time, it was unclear whether it would ever reopen, or the inevitable sweep of redevelopment would forever wipe it from the North West’s gig circuit. Fortunately, and after the seemingly endless musical void of the pandemic, news emerged that the venue was to reopen under new ownership, and the band were quick to get a show booked. By strange coincidence – or forces unknown – we learn that this also happens to be the venue’s first gig by an original (non-tribute) band, since its recent reopening. There’s a pleasing symmetry to this, which no doubt adds to the air of expectation…
The band does not disappoint!
Following a brief introduction by Steve Pilkington (a familiar face to many here, as he used to promote some Citadel gigs for The Classic Rock Society, before it too folded in 2019), the band hit the stage and launch straight into Tomorrow Dies from the Sight Of Day album, immediately setting the intention (though few here would have doubted it) that the band mean business, with driving melodic rock, powerful dynamics and the soaring crystalline vocals of Olivia Sparnenn-Josh blasting clear any remaining cobwebs from the corners of the resurrected venue! After barely a pause, comes the ominous stabbing intro to Spirit Of Mankind, the first of a scattering of songs from the band’s latest release Graveyard Star, and whilst it might be expected that tonight’s show would include slightly more songs from this album, there are inevitably trade-offs to be made nearly a quarter of a century and 14 albums into the band’s career, balancing much loved back catalogue with newer or other less often played songs. The Graveyard Star tour had begun last autumn with much poignancy considering the album’s themes, as we all emerged blinking and bewildered from serial lockdowns into a tentatively reawakening live music scene. So I’d say that this revised setlist achieved a good balance, with a sizeable chunk of material also from the previous album White Rainbow, a fair selection of ‘old favourites’, and even one or two surprises thrown in.
Back to the concert then, and Spirit Of Mankind includes a cheeky lyrical and rhythmic reference to a much older track, Fading Colours – a trick the band have used before and which always brings about a smile of déjà vu. This song stomps urgently forwards and ever upwards, ensuring heads are nodding and feet tapping as it builds to a characteristic Mostly Autumn climax – impassioned guitar solo from Bryan Josh, key change and chorus reprise – it is euphoric stuff and surely this is a huge part of the band’s appeal.
We continue with a couple of old classics: The Spirit Of Autumn Past and The Last Climb give Angela Gordon her first opportunities to step forward with some melodious and sensitive flute work, before Bryan once again soars away on a long and fluid guitar solo. Again we are reminded that this band excels at creating the most positive and uplifting music from often heartfelt or tragic subject matter, and without ever being overly literal or ‘in your face’ with their messaging.
It’s a relief to find that there haven’t been any dramatic changes to the stage and lighting setup at the venue, and it retains its compact theatre atmosphere, with standing area downstairs and a seated balcony for those who prefer it. Dark stage surrounds, without any of the distracting branding or advertising that many venues seem to be installing, and a more than capable lighting rig. The sound desk is in safe hands with Dave Pickering whose experience with the band ensures the best sound balance, and sensible volume levels with any given setup. Roger Newport’s accompanying video projections continue to evolve with the band, and an extra large backdrop screen tonight makes them especially effective, although I personally find them to sometimes be an unnecessary distraction from the music (this is true for many a band). Though by no means a huge stage, there is adequate room for Mostly Autumn’s considerable equipment setup, allowing Angela, and even Andy Smith on bass (usually content to lurk at the back), occasional excursions to the front of the stage when the focus of attention is not on the lead vocals of Bryan or Olivia. Even Henry Rogers has some light on him tonight, and his drum kit is positioned such that he is clearly visible rather than mostly obscured behind it on a raised platform as is sometimes the case.
There are a couple of ‘deep cuts’ in tonight’s set, and the first of these is Chris Johnson’s song Gaze from the Heart Full Of Sky limited edition second disc. Later we’ll also get to hear Heart, Body And Soul from the Sight Of Day bonus disc, a delicate duo performance between Olivia, and Iain Jennings on piano, as the other band members briefly leave the stage.
Back In These Arms is the last of the new songs in this first half of the show, and is a triumphant celebration of the end of lockdown restrictions, with a rousing finale rich in celtic tones, here provided by Angela on low whistle, but of course augmented on record by the unmistakable Uilleann pipes of Troy Donockley. Angela does a fine job live which it would be a shame to drown out, though this melody really does invoke the urge for a massive “laa laa laa laa la-la-la laaa” style sing-along! Well, maybe that’s just me…
Stepping back in time again to close out the first set before the interval, and it’s old favourites Passengers, followed by Mother Nature. Band and audience can then take a breather, and after such a powerful opening set, it’s hard to believe we’re barely half way through tonight’s performance!
In For The Bite, originally from a Josh solo project, has been a regular presence in the Mostly Autumn live set for some years now, and its cascading drums and choppy riff introduce the second half of the show, ensuring energy levels remain high! Two songs from the White Rainbow album follow, before we’re back to the current album with one of its quirkier songs, Skin Of Mankind, in which Bryan evokes the guitar sound of Hank Marvin and The Shadows for an up-tempo folk/country vibe that it’s almost impossible to resist dancing to, whilst grinning from ear to ear. This variety of song styles, instrumentation, and multiple lead vocalists, has always been a key part of the band’s identity, and helps to make their music difficult to pigeon-hole.
As someone who’s followed the band’s every move for over 20 years, it is my firm belief that they’re currently riding a high they’ve rarely equalled. The last couple of albums seem to have taken them into slightly heavier, harder-rocking territory, occasionally even embracing the ‘symphonic metal’ influence of bands such as Nightwish, but there also seems to be a slight re-emphasis, in some sections at least, towards the folkier celtic tones often found on their early albums. With a stable line-up for several years now, the strength of tonight’s set list really pays testimony to how well they’re working together as a band both on stage and in the studio.
Chris is well established now as the band’s third lead vocalist, and he has another couple of songs for us tonight. Changing Lives ends with its usual audience participation sing-along, and the enthusiastic St. Helens crowd do noticeably better than some, at rising to the invitation. Silver Glass follows, and then most of the band leave the stage during Iain and Livvy’s piano and vocal interlude Heart, Body And Soul, mentioned previously. Calm before the storm…
The band return, as atmospheric keyboards introduce the main show’s finale, the appropriately epic White Rainbow, and this near 20 minute piece contains all the elements that define Mostly Autumn, both lyrically and musically; it is a complete journey, much like Mother Nature which closed the first set. In a sense it could be Mother Nature Part 2, but this time she gets REALLY angry – indeed this track features Mostly Autumn at their very heaviest and most intense in the maelstrom of its mid-section, before an uplifting, light and joyous ending where once again pounding drums and bass, crunchy guitar riffs, and chiming synths, give way to lightly strummed acoustic guitars, whistles and folky vocal harmonies. It’s a perfectly exhilarating ending for the show.
And yet there’s more, because of course the crowd call for an encore, and how could they not play Heroes Never Die? Always an opportunity for a final heartrending guitar solo from Bryan, with Angela responding on flute, before Bryan’s customary gestured acknowledgement and appreciation of the audience (immediately reciprocated), and ending with an enormous crescendo of sound and crash of the drums.
Forever And Beyond is the very last song of the night, and its lilting tune and marching rhythm ensure that the audience leave with smiling faces and a spring in their step.
You can clearly tell that the band are glad to be back playing live – there’s a joy and energy on the stage, and the always loud and enthusiastic Citadel crowd feed the fire of the performance throughout the show. It really is no exaggeration to describe this as a triumphant return. Tonight WAS a good night! We’re left with a feeling (and a hint from Bryan), that it won’t be long till the next one.
Spirit Of Mankind
The Spirit Of Autumn Past
The Last Climb
This Endless War
Back In These Arms
—– Interval —–
In For The Bite
Into The Stars
Skin Of Mankind
Nowhere To Hide
Heart, Body And Soul
—– Encores —–
Heroes Never Die
Forever And Beyond