When I first saw that Ottawa’s The Acorn were booked into a church in the suburbs of Manchester not known for gigs, I was a bit sceptical of the accuracy of this announcement. However it turned out that this the first of four UK dates for the band was not only genuine, but at said church as part of Chorlton Arts Festival a “not-for-profit, week-long celebration of the arts in South Manchester”. An inspired booking for them and a special evening for everyone there.
St Clements Church occupies a leafy corner of a cross-roads in Chorlton and from the exterior appears quite twee and aged (late 19th century but built to look older?) but inside is quite modern and spartan. I was expecting to be sat on wooden pews but any seating had been cleared for this standing gig with the bands playing at the entrance to a large wing (chancel?) with a distant stained glass window behind them. My next surprise was to find myself jockeying for a good spot with hoardes of kids. This was truly an all ages gig with everyone from eight to eighty. Scepticism about this broad demographic also turned out to be misplaced - but first the opening act.
Local lads Blind Atlas were in support but the accent of the lead singer when talking to the sound guys sounded suspiciously North American to me. Which was entirely keeping with their music. The five piece play a gently paced, countrified Americana that is not afraid to take its time or extend songs with woozy guitar solos but it never feels indulgent or unwelcome. It reminded me of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s album “Sings Greatest Palace Songs”: a joyous easy-going country vibe but with undercurrents of darkness just below the surface.
Single ‘Take A While’ (“available now in independent record shops”) came early on in their seven song set. Just when I thought I’d got the measure of the band they finished with ‘Ironwall’ featuring tribal drums, dark incantations and bowed electric bass. A spooky-as-hell finish to a hugely confident set. Blind Atlas are one of the bands competing in Green Poll to win the opening slot for the Green Man Festival – definitely deserving of your support.
The Acorn are another all-male five-piece but with slightly further to travel to get to tonight’s gig, played in advance of their new album “No Ghost” being released in early June. It turns out they had only arrived in the UK this morning and were feeling the ravages of jet-lag. But it did not show.
I’d always thought the band’s 2008 record “Glory Hope Mountain” was a studio affair given its intricate detail and delicate arrangements but tonight’s final – and best surprise – was that The Acorn live reproduce that level of detail beautifully and seemingly without effort. Part of their secret is having two drummers playing on separate kits –this adds additional layers of percussion, occasional extra emphasis but also interwoven rhythms. It was great to watch the two drummers play in between each other, often adding fills for each other. Over these rhythms the rest of the band lead by singer and songwriter Rolf Klausener switch the mood from gentle lullabies (‘Glory’) to jagged folk-rock (new songs ‘No Ghost’ and ’Bobtail Ghostwraith’ – the latter I cannot wait to hear again) but without abrupt shifts or rough edges. And throughout Rolf’s clear and sweetly romantic vocals further held the mood together.
What really impressed me tonight was the slower and sparse songs – they were breath-takingly moving. And this is a band suffering jet-lag? I couldn’t imagine them sounding better, even with a full night’s sleep.
The band were all quite unassuming, happy to leave the talking to singer Rolf. He introduced songs, was so relaxed he was happy to let someone in the crowd answer their mobile phone (and even say “hello”) and to thank everyone repeatedly. He did so in response to the overwhelmingly warm and genuine welcome their playing received.
This audience seemed to be made up of a curious blend of fans, festival-goers who’d turned up on spec and families with kids in tow. But everyone, whatever their age or motivation for being there, was charmed and the atmosphere was friendly and enthusiastic. I think a marker of how many people were new to the band – plus how they had won the uninitiated over – was the huge number of copies of “Glory Hope Mountain” they seemed to be selling at the end.
It’s fair to say The Acorn should be playing bigger gigs than this (following Grizzly Bear and The Magnetic Fields into Manchester Cathedral?) – but for those festival goers unfamiliar with them and for fans alike – you couldn’t beat the intimate setting or the warm welcome.
The Set List:
Cobbled From Dust
I Made The Law
Flood Pt. 1
Hold Your Breath