By: Charlie Gardner

Sweet Billy Pilgrim | website | facebook | twitter |  

Support: Bruce Soord | website

Green Door Store, Brighton | September 15, 2015

It has been said that you’re more likely to find a clear lane on the M25 in the rush hour than you you’ll find an empty gig in Brighton; but here I am on a wet Tuesday evening in the Green Door Store with an auditorium so deserted that I could park several cars in what is, ironically, a former garage.

Perhaps it’s the rain; perhaps it’s the competition from the media frenzy surrounding the new Labour leader’s appearance at the TUC conference, round the corner; or perhaps it’s simply that despite a Mercury nomination for Twice Born Men and ecstatic reviews for their latest album, Motorcade Amnesiacs, Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s eclectic musical style belies the fact that they have something of a niche following…

Whatever the reason, I find myself making up half the audience in a venue where only a month beforehand I stood with 400 others to see a buskingtastic Frank Turner. But tonight, as prog nobility, Bruce Soord, bravely opens the proceedings, trying out new material from his forthcoming solo album, it’s just the two of us.

I already know from his Facebook page that this is not to be Bruce Soord with his ‘Pineapple Thief head’ on; neither is it to be the Bruce Soord of Wisdom of Crowds, his superb collaboration with Katatonia frontman Jonas Renske. Frankly, neither of us in the audience knows what to expect from a stage crowded with laptops and one acoustic guitar, but what we get is Bruce Soord, singer-songwriter with just the tiniest hint of prog. And despite the deafening silence of expectation from a near empty auditorium, he hits the ground running with ‘Buried Here’, establishing a sound that is part acoustic and part ambient/overdub, with the added support of sideman Darran Charles on electric guitar.

It’s a promising start, and one which swells the crowd to perhaps eight by the end of it, but ‘Familiar Patterns’, which follows, literally sets the tone for the rest of the programme’s flat dynamic: perfectly enjoyable material, but nothing really remarkable or affecting, with the slight exception of the jazz-funk ‘The Odds’ in which Soord and Charles find a groove worthy of Becker and Fagen.

Bruce Soord

Bruce Soord

Sadly, this one of the few positive comparisons I can make. Try as hard as I might, it’s impossible not to measure someone as established as the Pineapple Thief founder against a roll-call of my all-time favourite guitar poets: from Browne, Taylor, Mitchell and Maclean through the Neils (Young and Finn) to the more contemporary anger and passion of Ryan Adams, Frank Turner and Kate Walsh. It’s a very high bar – and one that he is a very long way from touching with what still feels like work in progress.

Distracted, I take some photos then find myself pacing the room, really wishing I was enjoying it more; but in truth even his singing is curiously colourless and dispassionate despite the deeply personal nature of the material. Or perhaps I am simply missing the compelling edginess that Renske brings to WOC? Time and again I hear echoes of the Finn brothers in the harmonies, but Crowded House this isn’t, though it does at least deserve an audience of double figures.

In the end, at least, an almost respectable 25 of us are there to witness ‘Willow Tree’, a puzzling closer with a hook that is disarmingly similar to The Script’s ‘The Man Who Can’t Be Moved’ and a Santana-like guitar solo from Charles that while technically flawless seems to stand completely outside of the song.

Pineapples are not the only fruit, and I will certainly give the album a chance on its release in November, but frankly the prospect of a new Wisdom of Crowds collaboration, next year, fills me with much greater excitement – not least because it’s a project where the pen is mightier than just the Soord.

During the changeover, I have real concerns that Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s We Just Did What Happened and No One Came might be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; but as they start up with the familiar Madness-like intro of ‘Bell, Book and Candle’ the audience swells to a warm-and-friendly 75 or so.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Their Green Door Store appearance is part of mini-tour in support of Motorcade Amnesiacs, and SBP present a trend-bucking set that, with a few glaring exceptions, has the best of this superb album at its core. And the openers stick pretty closely to album order too with a sequence of ‘Make it So’, ‘Fast Forward to the Freeze Frame’ and ‘Slingshot Grin’ filling the first 20 minutes.

As a live ensemble they make a peculiar stage picture, looking for all the world like a bewildered covers band more accustomed to cruise ships and cricket clubs. Out on the wicket, Tim Elsenburg, looking every inch a 6’6” gangly cousin of Chris Evans, takes an energetic lead, hopping and bopping with his guitar sideman. Jana Carpenter, on the other hand, is a study in self-effacing stillness: all in black and hunched over an outsized, ebony Fender like Bonnie Rait’s shy sister. Singing live, you feel, is still something of a challenge for her, but one she visibly warms to, lifting her eyes from her guitar shapes to catch our gaze with a seductive twinkle.

Jana from Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Jana Carpenter from Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Motorcade Amnesiacs is, of course, SBP’s most ambitious album to date; choc-full of complex multi-instrumentations and luscious layers, and a real move away from the more lo-fi menu of their earlier garden-shed projects. So the Sixty-Four Billy-on Dollar Question is this: do they manage to capture the spirit of Motorcade in their live performance? And the short answer is: not quite…

I can’t fault them for effort. On tour, they expand the band from the core four to a six with the addition of Barney Muller on guitar and Dan Garland on keyboards and samples; but though this broadens the sound, conversely it draws attention to what’s got lot lost in translation. ‘Fast Forward to the Freeze Frame’ is a perfect example of this: shorn of its Knifeworld-like horns, it feels pale and emasculated, almost “unprogged”. ‘Slingshot Grin’ just isn’t as good without those rich string sounds in the coda; and with Anthony Bishop on permanent bass duty tonight, there are numerous instances where the dish lacks the subtle seasoning of his banjo riffs.

And then there’s the sound itself: three guitars, bass, drums, synths, samplers and two lead vocalists is clearly more than the pocket-sized PA at the GDS is up to. And for most of the evening, the band are ‘thrashing the pastel’ in a way they could never have meant when they conceived their unique self-label. As so often happens in such situations, it’s the vocals that suffer: falling off the top and disappearing in the rest of the mix before briefly resurfacing for air; and this happens time and time again, with almost every number resembling a sunken soufflé.

‘Tyrekickers’, at least, provides a brief respite: set to a simple piano line, Carpenter’s honey-bourbon larynx sounds all glorious (and completely worthy of the extraordinary baggage that surname brings to any singer) until the rest of the band joins in… and punctures her. And that’s not just a shame, but something SBP absolutely must fix in the future. For in Elsenburg and Carpenter, they have two of the best vocalists in any genre, anywhere.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Added to which Elsenburg is an engaging frontman, holding it all together with a combination of folksy charm and the ready wit you would expect from a song poet capable of such interesting and angular couplets. That said, I can do without some of the repartee, especially if it leaves time in the set for the astonishing ‘Longstreth’ and ‘Grove Ponies’, by some margin the two best tracks on Motorcade but inexplicably missing from the setlist, tonight.

It’s not to be. But cheekily introduced by Elsenburg as ‘our attempt to sex up prog’, ‘We Just Did What Happened and Nobody Came’ proves something of a highlight, finding a smouldering Steely Dan-ness that surpasses the sensuality of the album version.

Not even the anthemic energy of ‘Coloma Blues’ can match this, but just as the evening seems to be slipping away from them something astonishing happens… Elsenburg picks up an acoustic and together with Carpenter and Bishop steps down from the stage to perform ‘Blue Sky Falls’ unplugged, and promenade-style amongst the audience. The sheer simplicity of it turns the world upside down, and the eight minutes that follow provide one of those gobsmacking, hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck experiences that all too rarely happen in live music. Carpenter is completely at her ease now, her effortless chemistry with a slingshot-grinning Elsenburg resonant of Emmylou Harris with Rodney Crowell; and Bishop provides a sensitive harmony from a distance, content to let the lead vocalists have the spotlight.

Unplugged

Tim Elsenburg and Jana Carpenter unplugged

Nothing, apart from an ecstatic reception, can follow this of this course and the completion of the set with ‘Bloodless Coup’ and ‘Kracklite’ seems like an unnecessary interruption to the rapture of the sublime and extraordinarily beautiful moment that has gone before.

But the evening isn’t over yet. With such a small showing, it’s vital that the band retails a bit of merch, and Elsenburg is first to the punch, dumping boxes of T-shirts and vinyls on the edge of the stage like a frenetic football coach unveiling the new kit to the Under-18s. Carpenter meanwhile, gets busy unfolding the tees, selling them with all the effusiveness of a parent at a PTA fund-raiser. She is in her element now, confident and supercharged with the adrenaline of performance, and we are soon in deep discussion regarding the merits of Gilban band tees – ‘No ugly side seams, Darling!’ As I hand over my £15 she pats her back pocket. ‘More money for Waitrose?’ I venture, referencing an earlier on-stage comment to her penchant for the John Lewis outlet at South Mimms Services. ‘More money for Waitrose!’ she laughs. This is such a lovable band.

On my meandering walk home, I still feel a glow from ‘Blue Sky Falls’ that keeps the drizzle at bay, although it’s an aura tinged with the sadness that Brighton could serve up barely 100 of us to witness it. But most of all, I just can’t stop thinking about the conundrum that is Sweet Billy Pilgrim playing live… Instead of fast forwarding to the freeze frame, how do they play the entire tape? Get better gear, be really picky about the venues they play, and (above all) always take their own sound engineer on tour are the perhaps too obvious answers. And then a slingshot grin hits me right between the eyes… a solution that is so dazzingly obvious… a solution that is ‘Blue Sky Falls’. Or rather, ‘Blue Sky Falls’, unplugged…

Why not simply take a leaf out of label-mates Anathema’s book and construct a set of bespoke acoustic arrangements that can be toured by just a core three or four? It’s not back to basics so much as back to the shed at the bottom of the garden, for it’s here, it seems to me, the essence of Sweet Billy Pilgrim is to be found. Instead of supporting an album by trying to match the complexities of the studio, try making the live performances stand-alone things of beauty in themselves.

Just do it… See what happens… And I promise you, everybody will come!

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