Tonight was, unusually, an unplanned trip out. Walton Hesse were the main draw but there was also intrigue about how Emanuel And The Fear, a Brooklyn eleven-piece, would fit in the tiny upstairs room at Dulcimer.
Arriving we thought late, it was a relief to see Walton Hesse had not started their set. However patience was required due to protracted technical difficulties with microphones. A brief band discussion about whether to sing with one mic, like Status Quo, was quickly resolved: “We are NOT Status Quo”.
Their appearance alone should tell you this: two checked shirts, couple of beards and a truckers’ baseball cap. Add some guitar twang, banjo, gruff-drawl male lead vocals and female harmonies and you have a fully-fledged six-piece alt-country band. Just from the industrial North of England rather than the US of A.
Wherever they are from, Walton Hesse are the real deal. Their rip-roaring (country) rock as on third song 'The Only Son' reminds me of Uncle Tupelo at times – but fourth song of the set was a banjo-and-harmonium ballad that built in intensity topped off with single beaten drum and guitar drone. Maybe also reminds me a bit of the sonic experimentation of Wilco? This was a short six song set but I received some welcome news from a little bird afterwards that the band have just finished recording some songs for release. Cannot wait to hear the results.
If the six-piece Walton Hesse had technical issues on the cramped stage, James Kelly kept it solo and simple. He played acoustic guitar seated whilst beating out rhythm on a kick-pedal inside his open guitar case. This was intense, lightning-fast acid-blues with occasional touches of psyche-folk in the quieter moments. He covered Jimi Hendrix (‘Red House’) but made it sound more like Lightning Hopkins on speed (maybe the original does too?). Comment of the evening on James's aggressive playing: "He should have been in a punk band". But in those quieter moments the Bank Holiday drinking banter was starting steadily to impinge on the music.
Emanuel And The Fear tonight were playing as a ‘cut-down’ version – six players not eleven as advertised: drums, bass, cello, flute, violin and leader Emanuel on Fender guitar. Youthful, afro’ed and chatty, Emanuel was a confident and animated band leader; but the rest of The Fear looked, well, scared. Or maybe just tired?
A Sufjan Stevens reference (as always) had hooked my interest but listening to the band earlier on last.fm I thought their orch-pop was closer to the arty indie-rock of say Ra Ra Riot. Live though the drums and guitar dominated and it came across as unsubtle blues-rock stomp. I could make out the flute at times but most of the strings were lost to my ears. So some of the delicacy and depth I was expecting was absent but this could be down to some of the sound problems that seemed to dog the evening. Also by now the Sunday drinkers were truly in the ascendancy.
This was the last night of their first ever UK tour before Emanuel And The Fear head off to Europe: I hope it was a good one for them. It wasn’t a gig that instantly grabbed my attention but I’m more than happy to give them the benefit of doubt and give new album “Listen”, out today, a proper listen. Maybe the five missing players and a lack of boozy background chat will make all the difference.