If you think Halifax is only home to a bank and a perpetually under-performing football team then you’ve clearly never been to this West Yorkshire town recently. If a recent Wembley victory for FC Halifax Town wasn’t enough, the burgeoning music scene has seen the likes of Kasabian and Florence and the Machine passing through in the last month or so. Renovated buildings such as the Square Chapel have enabled this small town to become a respected hub for the arts scene. Together with its jaw-dropping new library and the wealth of artisan food producers and real ale establishments that call this town their home, it’s becoming harder by the day to keep what The Guardian recently called “the Shoreditch of the north” a secret for much longer. This will certainly be the case if Live at Piece Hall, a unique eighteenth century statement of wealth, becomes a regular feature of the musical calendar.
In contrast, building’s fortunes have certainly been mixed in recent times but after a £19 million renovation was completed last year, the Italianate courtyard is now the perfect venue for all manner of events. Nathan Clark of the Brudenell Club in nearby Leeds clearly sees the potential and has been fundamental in organising this afternoon’s inaugural shindig and we’re promised an incredible day of music, headlined by the enigmatic Father John Misty.
Blue skies and the wonderfully warm temperature ensure that there is a relaxed and welcoming vibe throughout the day, but the event is sadly more reflective than was probably intended following the tragic loss of Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, who were scheduled to perform in the evening. There is no underestimating the impact this devastating loss has had on music fans around the globe and each band ensures that they pay their respects during their performances.
Five o’clock comes around and we’ve had time to sample the ale, ice cream shop and gin bar and we’re all ready at last for some musical entertainment. Unfortunately, we’re sadly under-capacity when Halifax locals The Orielles walk on to the stage but this doesn’t stop their shimmering guitar-led melodies from fusing perfectly with adventurous and unpredictable rhythms as the late afternoon sun starts to drop in the sky, saturating the stage in a wonderful golden light. The new album has been well-received but it is the older, final track of the evening which really captures the essence of the band. ‘Sugar Tastes Like Salt’ is a sprawling epic full of cartoon-inspired guitar riffs and unexpected changes in tempo that weave drunkenly but are always utterly lucid. It’s become their staple track to sign off with and it thrills this afternoon with an appreciative crowd of local fans.
Hookworms also stand by their Halifax heritage with pride and they too have been making waves since their third album was released just a few short months ago. Lead Matthew ‘MJ’ Johnson arrives on stage and gives a candid and heart-rending reading about the importance of Scott Hutchison’s words and music to him personally and we’re all allowed a moment to reflect on these themes as well. This is then followed by album opener ‘Negative Space’. It’s a vast expanse of sonic psychedelics and Johnson’s impassioned vocals deliver a pleasing contrast to this stylish backdrop. ‘Static Resistance’ and ‘Ullswater’ follow and their incessant percussive marches and pleasing synth tones integrate perfectly with jagged guitars and magnetic vocals, all contributing to a mesmerising performance that does not let up one bit as they rattle through their set.
At half-past seven, when Frightened Rabbit were due to take to the stage, Nathan Clark leads a moving minute of applause and recognition for Scott Hutchison, a wonderful songwriter and human being who so many will miss so much. The nature of the venue with its enclosed courtyard means that everyone participates and the necessary respect for this much-loved artist is given without the distraction of big wheels, candy floss and other festival entertainment usually found at an outdoor show.
Edwyn Collins‘ health problems are still painfully apparent but his set delivers upbeat moments of sheer class that has many in the crowd on their feet. Focusing on the many highlights from his Orange Juice days, including ‘Rip it Up’ and the memorable ‘Felicity’, Collins and his substantial band are irrepressible. The sun finally dips behind the fine Georgian architecture and the temperature drops significantly but this doesn’t effect the crowd’s vocal abilities as the highly anticipated ‘A Girl Like You’ arrives – the Scot’s animated presence is one the crowd warm to with ease.
Father John Misty‘s upcoming album arrives soon, and only a year after the divisive Pure Comedy, so it’s fair to say that this small town in Yorkshire is in a particularly privileged position when it comes to hearing the new material. Although we will get an insight into the new record in due course, Josh Tillman’s alter-ego arrives on stage with a vast entourage including half an orchestra as well as his usual band, and he opens with the sweeping majesty of ‘Nancy From Now On’ and ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’. Father John Misty has always exuded an effortless cool that teeters on the edge of ostentation perhaps, but isn’t that the point?
‘Strange Encounter’ is a theatrical spectacle with expansive strings and vivid guitar solos but despite on stage distractions elsewhere, we’re drawn to the bohemian charisma of Tillman. Despite this, ‘Only Son of the Ladiesman’ demonstrates a minor flaw in proceedings. There’s no doubting the authority of the artist or the splendour of the presentation, but there is a uniformity in pace and style that could be unsettled slightly, particularly in an outdoor venue, which is perhaps harder to keep completely engaged. There is very little interaction with the audience and when new track ‘Mr Tillman’ arrives, and what is clearly a song deserving of careful, critical scrutiny passes us by, you know that something is not quite right.
The middle section of the show is therefore just lacking the spark that previous Father John Misty shows have possessed. The final third demonstrates a shift in energy however and the synth-heavy ‘True Affection’ provides a wonderful soundtrack to the atmospheric lighting design of Piece Hall revealed once daylight finally fades and ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’ follows, clattering menacingly into view. Despite all the lyrical accolades and enigmatic cool that this man exudes, it is the encore which proves to be the most fun. ‘Real Love Baby’ is a slick 70s rocker and the evening concludes with the apocalyptic brilliance of ‘The Ideal Husband’ which is really the first and only time when the crowd are not just in awe of the man, but are also able to break free from his talismanic grip and really enjoy themselves. More of this please next time you pass through little old Halifax, Mr. Tillman.
Images: Iain Fox – see more photos in our gallery from the day here.