The Balky Mule, Jane Bartholomew, My Two Toms @ The Sanctuary Café, Brighton

The Balky Mule has flown all the way from his new home in Australia to be with us tonight in the intimate basement confines of the Sanctuary Café. The former member of post-rock folk pastoralists Flying Saucer Attack, as well as other Bristol-scene favourites Movietone and Crescent, has a new album out on Brighton-based record label Fat Cat. Having sent his solo-recorded effort half way round the world to be released, he’s now followed it to the UK to reveal just what he’s like live – as no-one really knows.

First up though are My Two Toms, a band perhaps unsurprisingly made up of two people named Tom. They sit crafting intricate and instrumental Americana, one Tom deftly plucking a banjo while the other does the same with a guitar. Some songs are jaunty, with stamping feet and thumped guitar for some extra oomph. Others are more reflective, quiet, almost nursery rhyme like in their fragile simplicity. All are short, so we don’t get bored. Nice work!

Next is Jane Bartholomew, a tiny woman in a vintage dress who sings sad songs. Her voice is a strange mix of little girl and sophisticated chanteuse and is ultimately pretty amazing, piercing the audience’s internal organs with a world-weary innocence. Songs about burying pet dogs, bad boyfriends and the like are accompanied by artfully deployed violin and cello, and there are some badass chord changes that hit you where it hurts. Things slip a little when Bartholomew switches from the electric guitar she’s been caressing to an electric organ, and the all pervading sense of quiet melancholy starts to get a little cloying, but she still manages to keep the crowd enraptured.

Compared to the technical precision of Bartholomew’s assault on the emotions, The Balky Mule comes across like some slack surfer who has just wandered in from the beach outside. A likeable chap with a guitar, clad in relaxed brown chords and green t-shirt, he is joined by one of My Two Toms on a tiny drum kit, and a bassist.

On record The Balky Mule is just the man himself layering things up on a four-track, with plenty of weird crackling effects, synth loops and the like – all good stuff.  In a live setting this fuzziness is trimmed and things are stripped down to the bare essentials.

Very much in the whimsical British outsider folky tradition of Syd Barrett and his ilk, he rambles on in an engaging way, describing life through a uniquely fractured lens in a voice reminiscent of the Kinks’ Ray Davies. The band probably haven’t had much time to rehearse, someone is out of tune, and the two new guys have to concentrate hard to keep in time with the wayward Mule… but I think that’s the way he likes it.

These skewed, stream of consciousness, observational songs with wonky chords and woozy lyrics wouldn’t benefit from advanced musicianship or endless rehearsal. It’s maybe better that their spontaneity is retained. Fourty-five minutes later the other two have left the stage but the The Mule plays on regardless, still spinning his quirky tales of urban Bristol and a rural Australia where endless train tracks disappear into the sunset on the horizon. Sounds like he made the right choice.  

Words: Adam Bambury