John Metcalfe – The Castle, Manchester – 15/05/16

I don’t know if John Metcalfe has worked with Brian Eno but for a time last night, listening to Perotin, Schoneberg and Sun, the first three – combined, 20-minute – songs from his show at The Castle I felt I could have been listening to Eno’s seminal ambient work Music for Airports. Except that, as far as I can recall, Brian didn’t throw in orchestral pieces, voices and jazz drum beats into the mix of that six hour behemoth.

If you go to watch John Metcalfe, a veteran of Factory Records, Durutti Column and various collaborations with the likes of Morrissey, Blur, Coldplay, Simple Minds and Peter Gabriel, be forewarned that you will see and hear something quite unique in British music; beautiful and uplifting at the same time. I doubt The Castle will see anything remotely like it again until he returns there. Actually it is the sort of music that should be performed in the Bridgewater Hall or the RNCM but John likes small intimate venues like this.

The other difference between him and Mr Eno is that the latter can’t read music or play an instrument (I’m indebted to his interview with Stephen Sackur on Hard Talk for that gem). John Metcalfe can; there were reams of it plastered across the instruments. But on his own admission, though he should know it all by memory by now, he doesn’t always. And it is complicated stuff, not for casual listening. The audience was wrapped up in it all night as if they were in another world. I don’t think a single person left the room to go to the bar, toilet or for a smoke.

The band was a collection of musical talents, comprising double bassist Ali Friend from Red Snapper, drummer Daisy Palmer, latterly working with Blackpool singer-songwriter Rae Morris, and the dulcet tones of Rosie Doonan, who’s spent the last few years touring with Birdy. She is also one of a select few people, along with Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor and Paula Cole, to have sung Don’t Give Up with Peter Gabriel. Quite a line up. And a first for John Metcalfe to have lyrics as well. Previously he didn’t want words or ideas to limit his imagination and response to the music.

The performance was of his latest album, The Appearance of Colour, which is on Gabriel’s Real World label and which he tags as ‘post-classical’ and ‘electronic.’ Apparently he writes music by associating it with colours. His music flows through and around all the instruments at the band’s disposal, which includes a lot of looping of keyboards, guitar and violin (or perhaps a viola, I can never tell the difference in the dark) to produce what is close to an orchestral sound at times. And it certainly doesn’t lack emotion either.

Sometimes something quite unexpected will happen such as Rosie Doonan repeating just one word endlessly a la Laurie Anderson, Ali Friend launching into a blistering attack on his strings or the nimble fingered and expansive Daisy Palmer attacking the drum kit out of the blue with an intensity that belies her slight build (and often the hi-hat, which she seems to have a particular penchant for), in a jazzy manner that seems tangentially off-set to the main theme. She did it noticeably on Kite, ostensibly about flying one on a beach in Wales although the lyrics about ‘sticking inside of you’ didn’t quite seem to fit – a real rocker of a piece that builds, builds, builds to a crescendo and during which she thrashes it in the same way that Basil Fawlty treats his wretched car.

There are plenty of slower instrumental passages and as the gig progressed both Ali Friend and Rosie Doonan also got their chance to shine, the former during Sycamore, another frenetically building piece in which his fingers were a blur, and the latter particularly during Wrapped, the final track of the evening and during which she was able to give full vent to her chops.

Before then ‘ambience’ had returned with the album’s title track, during which the synths simply swept you away.

I’m not quite sure how best to sum this event up, and that is what it was, an event. You’ll see more visually exciting performances for sure, but I doubt that you will hear musicianship of this standard in many other places. You’d think this collection of people had been working together forever. Perhaps the most appropriate adjective is simply (deeply and intensely) ‘satisfying.’

© D J Bentley, 2016

Gold, Green. (Ali Friend and Daisy Palmer featured).

Remaining tour dates:

19 May BRIGHTON Great Escape Festival

20 May OXFORD The Bullingdon

21 May STROUD, SVA, Brunel Goods Shed

28 May LEICESTER Cookie

29 May LONDON Royal Albert Hall Elgar Room