Jane Weaver at Hare & Hounds, Birmingham

Support: Dorcha
November 29, 2017 at Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
Promoter: This is TMRW

2017 has been a good year for Jane Weaver. Modern Kosmology is a cracking album, by general consensus her best yet, and has seen her reaching a wider audience. It’s already popping up in end of year polls, and she rounds out this tour with her biggest ever headline show in Manchester, billed as a “MUST SEE live band version of Modern Kosmology“. I’m pretty excited about that.

First up though, local awkward squad Dorcha. They aren’t supposed to be here, having vowed they were going into hiding to work on an album for release next year. Still, here they are baffling a good-sized crowd with their fractious, art-damaged, knotty experiments. Over competent and open wide, there’s a sense they could do anything they wanted and that, quite possibly, they want to do all of it. In quick succession, in messy stacks, in compulsive fits. Their recent ‘miniatures’ project saw them working with other writers to push things out even further. Leader, Anna Palmer confesses they are a hard band to love at first sight “we’re slightly schizophrenic, but we’ve come to embrace it”, and if they do sometimes look like they belong in five different bands they play together with ease and precision. Palmer is a commanding presence, a star in waiting, effortless and strange. This album they’re off to make will either be incredible or a terrible mess, but if they fail it won’t be for any lack of ambition.

Six months ago, Jane Weaver launched her album with a great sold-out show in the smaller room here. Some of us grumbled amongst ourselves that she should already have been playing the big room, surely; she apologised for using lyric sheets and any mistakes. As it was, she barely glanced at them; and although the band seemed a little tense, focussed on the still unfamiliar new material, they carried the day. So tonight I was expecting something triumphant, a battle-hardened touring unit now completely in synch and pushing those great songs into a remarkable live set, “a MUST SEE live band version of Modern Kosmology“, if you will.

Sadly it wasn’t quite the case.

They do play the album, in almost its entirety, in basically the same order as the record (and as the previous show) but they don’t manage to bring it thrillingly to life. It’s a frustrating experience: I’m stood willing it to catch fire, or cut through, and wondering why it doesn’t. Perhaps they’ve lost their fight with the road. They’re just back from a jaunt around Europe and the guitarist in particular looks exhausted; they seem to have shed a couple of band members on the way too. It’s now just a trio of Jane, and guitar and drums – the bass and most of the synth parts are on backing tapes. Unlike some, I’m not ideologically opposed to this as ‘cheating’ or any other tired muso nonsense, but tonight it’s hard not to pinpoint it as the source of their problems. The bass thuds and distorts; the gorgeous synth sounds of the album are made brittle. A couple of times they sound like old 80s’ presets, briefly summoning an image of Weaver as a lost synth-pop act. That’s honestly not such a bad thin; it would work pretty well for an interesting couple of remixes at least.

The band though are tied rigidly to the tape, making their playing stiff where the music itself wants to flow and bend. Part of what makes Modern Kosmology so great is Weaver wrapping herself up in a studio chrysalis and growing it with patience and loving care. That it wasn’t thrashed out in a rehearsal room by a bunch of beardy blokes with different opinions helps give it a singular, intimate feel; but it’s also why it’s not spreading its bright wings to take flight from the stage. Recent single ‘The Architect’ is a straight-up banger, crying out for a crowd-pleasing, butt-shaking, head-nodding extension of it’s motorik groove; but instead it just winds to a truncated stop. Jane’s voice is wonderful all night, pitch-perfect but also slightly blank; she even seems to sing parts of gorgeous album highlight ‘The Lightning Back’ through gritted teeth.

All is not lost though: earlier in the year the circling folk-psych dirge of ‘Ravenspoint’ seemed a really odd choice to close out the set, but tonight it’s one of the highlights. Jane pulls on a guitar and somehow immediately enlivens proceedings. Even while the song itself is a hazy swirl of firesmoke in the woods. “We’re on our way to dust”, is a near perfect lyric, simultaneously cosmic and bluntly down to earth, it holds a key to Weaver’s unique appeal. The same thing happens again a few songs later when she picks the guitar back up for tonight’s odd choice of set-closer ‘Element’, an eight-minute pulsing, hypnotic groove that appeared as a b-side on the recent 12″. It twitches and rolls with unrelenting momentum, and the kind of loose, joyous sense of possibility that’s been missing from so much of the set. Hopefully that’s the way forward for the Jane Weaver live experience, and if it is – then I’m in.

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