Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo are not the sort of women to let the grass grow under their feet. Having spent much of last year on the road, taking in a huge range of venues, from small pubs to enormodrome arenas and outdoor festivals, historic churches to modern arts centres; an appearance at the Olympics opening ceremony; collecting an Ivor Novello Best TV Music award for ‘Pause’ (their theme for BBC2’s ‘The Shadow Line’ law-and-disorder television drama); recording a new album and capping it all off with a sell-out performance at Islington’s Union Chapel, most people would have been glad of a couple of months off.
But while lesser mortals may not have done much with the winter apart from count the long, dark days until the coming of spring, Emily, Anna, Gill and Jo have been focusing on their plans for the year ahead – and all the hard work paid off handsomely with three outstanding shows in London this week to showcase their forthcoming album Dear River.
The audiences were treated to a band in fine form, powering through a 70-minute setlist split equally between old and new. It’s a measure of the group’s confidence that they opened all three nights with the loping backbeat of the newer ‘Dear River’ with Anna letting loose some fiery bluegrass-infused violin, following it immediately with another, the bluesy country-rock of ‘Ghost Narrative’, but the enthusiastic response affirmed the potentially high-risk strategy of starting the sets with previously unheard songs.
Lyrically, Dear River concerns itself with the notion of home and nowhere is this clearer than in ‘Letters’, ‘Sleeping Horses’ and ‘A Spadeful Of Ground’ with its reminder that the shameful dispossession of indigenous people in Emily’s Australian homeland continues to this day. However, Emily Barker is nothing if not a skilled lyricist and what might become polemic tub-thumping in other hands is expressed here eloquently and poetically.
Musically, the band’s style has benefited enormously from a major overhaul of its rhythm section, with the introduction of the subtle percussive touches of Nat (the newest Halo) and Jo adding sinewy electric bass to nearly half the set. The result is a radical augmentation of the rootsy ‘chamber folk’ heart that still beats with a passion. This is especially evident in the pulsing ‘Everywhen’, where the motorik sensibilities of Kraftwerk are overlaid with the swirling swagger of Jo and Anna’s classically-grounded strings, creating a genuinely new sound which is surely destined to become a mainstay of drivetime radio shows everywhere.
Throughout, Gill’s well-tempered accordion and keyboards counterpointed Emily’s guitar fingerpicking and the trademark four-part vocal harmonies, developed over the course of the three previous albums, were particularly noticeable in ‘Ropes’, ‘Calendar’ and ‘Nostalgia’. The icing on the cake was provided by guest vocalist Dom Coyote, who comfortably filled Frank Turner’s shoes for a rabble-rousing version of the cheerfully unhinged central European polka with added blues harmonica that is ‘Fields Of June’.
From these tantalising previews, it’s certain that Dear River is going to be something very special and it’s to be hoped that it will be the breakthrough album that at last brings Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo the degree of recognition they so richly deserve.