Gravy Train | The Lanes, Bristol
Wednesday 21st July — Emily Isherwood
There's nothing quite like the smell of dry ice. So much of it your eyes are stinging.
The audience stands hesitant, unsure of how much distance is safe, whether an unmasked face is a danger or a liberty. If the latter, is it one that's justified?
As Emily Isherwood takes to the stage, there’s no need to mince words. Under the lights, looking like a Venice Beach roller skater, she’s a fucking powerhouse — and her brand new track See You Go as an opener feels like a godsend.
The crowd that had just seconds before been bumbling about the smoking area are now pouring into the room as the bowling-alley/venue background noise of clattering pins are drowned out by Isherwood's powerful, breathy vocals. Her voice breaks in the most beautiful way and the band creates an atmosphere of emotional indulgence. It's the first time this iteration of the Isherwood band have played together and in part, it shows, but if anything the fresh appeal just adds to the performance. There is a rawness to the music. Isherwood likes her musicians scared.
The performance spans her discography from early tracks and Distant Television Studios bangers, to new, never-before-heard and released-today songs. The ease at which Isherwood performs has a noticeable effect on the room. No longer are people cowering at self isolating tables, instead they stand and sway, contemplative, waiting for the denouement.
You’d be surprised she's not taking stadiums at this point if you saw how the crowd rejoiced. Somehow, she's flown under the radar, religiously following her nose to produce a sound that is polished yet unscripted. This new iteration of Isherwood is heavier, with elements of rock and funk thrown in the introspective folk mix.
Storytelling, it’s clear, is Isherwood's forte. Poetic in her phrasing, it is impossible to guess the true meaning of her lyrics yet the charm in which she speaks them holds tight to a relatability that’s hard to place. A mundane afternoon having tea at a friend's becomes an odyssey of self-knowing. Microscopic social interactions shift world views. The instrumentation captures emotions you once dreamt in a fever dream, wordless and monumental.
Accompanied by a live band, the instrumentation feels like the last piece of a puzzle falling into place. Guitar doubles as lead and bass, perfectly weaving in and out of the mix. The violinist is also the backing vocalist, their high lilting harmonies balanced by their emotive playing. There's beauty in the half arranged tracks. Almost there but not quite. A viewfinder into the creative process. "You'll just play and I'll sing, I've forgotten it," admits Isherwood with no hint of shame. Confusion interlaces with heartache.
Like a forgotten folk song, the band move on with a rendition of Cloud Lily - the song is stripped back and ethereal. A guitar slips out of tune in the heat. "You can ask for refunds," she jokes. ‘As if’ is the response from the crowd. Her set is haunting and unignorable. The vocals intermingle in a round, "show me your lucky stripe" Isherwood coos, met by an echo. "How did they know what to do with their hands, everyone's mouth is a big marching band, in a forest of strangers I drift to the coast, and wonder if deforestation's allowed," It's social anxiety in a lullaby. I fiddle with my phone, unable to keep still in a room full of unknown people, a mirror image of the track being played on stage.
A bubbling excitement is rising around me. She pivots from lilting head voice to singing conversationally. "Thanks for coming and being the Guinea pigs" she concludes, and just like that, it’s over. The magic dissipates and I'm back in the half-bowling alley, half-venue. Dry ice stinging my eyes, an excuse for the sheen.
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