From Melbourne via LA, Horse Stories’ frontman Toby Burke stands alone, and sends his lovely voice soaring up into the Union Chapel’s vaulted darkness. He’s essentially a singer-songwriter dressed in country raiment, but it fits him well. His is an elegant melancholy; peals of electric guitar lapping against his songs like a mournful tide. You feel he deserves an orchestra.
Grand Drive’s Julian and Danny Wilson were originally from Australia, but grew up in south London. They take the “alt” out of alt.country to make music reminiscent of Nashville at its commercial worst, music that belongs on the soundtrack to Dawson’s Creek. It reaches its nadir on the cornball fluff of “Harmony”, a song which conjures the unholy memory of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney as it offers the definition “when two people sing as one”, which isn’t even musically correct. Even the charm of an early song like “Wrong Notes” has soured into schmaltz. There is something oddly narcissistic about the Wilsons’ helium harmonies; they billow gassily rather in the manner of Clannad, which isn’t at all what the doctor ordered.
“You’ll be happy to know the [new] record is a meditation on mortality,” Robert Fisher deadpans as Willard Grant Conspiracy take the stage, “which is another word for death.” A perfectly timed comic pause. “You won’t be required to do much dancing.” “River In The Pines” sets the tone, a traditional song in which, quips Fisher, “boy meets girl, they fall in love, then they die tragically.” Uncut’s Album Of The Month for July, Regard The End, from which the bulk of tonight’s set is taken, is certainly sombre. But as the descending notes of “Ghost Of The Girl In The Well” swell its wordless chorus, it suggests transcendence. Fisher is blessed with a voice that has all the gravity of a Cash, a Cohen or a Cale. This isn’t simply a maudlin exercise in classicism, however. This is a tradition whose relevance couldn’t be more sharply felt. “People have called this our anti-war song,” says Fisher of “Another Man Is Gone”, “which is okay as there aren’t enough of those.” “Day Is Passed And Gone” is introduced as “a lullaby, and like many lullabies, it features death prominently.” Fisher tells us his mother thought” you should sing children to bed reminding them that they are mortal: they wake up grateful.” The majestic “Suffering Song” reminds us that what unites us is our painful humanity. We walk out grateful.