Review | Pilot, Eleven Magpies + Three cane whale at The Tobacco Factory

Review | Pilot, Eleven Magpies + Three cane whale at The Tobacco Factory

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“Sorry, bar's closed. Take it up with the manager if you want.” Right, I think. It's going to be one of those evenings. A large group of suddenly dry-mouthed punters shuffle into the auditorium and locate empty seats. On the way in there are grumbles about the strictness which does seem slightly out of place in this independent hub of local culture. Once seated, however, I immediately sympathise with the policy. The lighting is a cool twilight; the audience is large and expectant; the stage is laid out with a care befitting a surprise performance from Neil Young. I sit up straight and pay attention. I had been expecting a casual folk gig, more commune than concert. This set-up, on the other hand, is oozing with legitimacy.

The friendly tower that is Ian Ross emerges, says hello, and straps on a guitar while the other members of Pilot take their positions. Benji Bower, wirily handsome and admirably bohemian, disappears behind the piano and lights up the first song, Feel Your Love. The ensemble produces a good sound; Bower is an accomplished pianist as well as composer, and the string section, combined with electric bass and guitar, offers texture without being distracting. Then the vocals arrive, and I am distracted- albeit in a good way.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is not someone I was familiar with before tonight, but it's going to be hard to forget her. With her Joni Mitchell hair, unassuming 'hello!', black dress and trainers, I was expecting...well I don't know what I was expecting, but certainly not the bassiest, smokiest voice this side of Mavis Staples. She sings like her vocal chords have lived through a few lifetimes and never strayed out of tune. The songs are now fighting in a difference weight class, arranged within an inch of their lives and lucky enough to be attached to a voice that can double their value. Bowers plugs away at the keys with energy controlled by finesse, and Gershwin-esque tonal collisions pop in and out as violins punctuate the bars. The set is mostly coolly paced, jazzy tales of love and yearning, save for an upbeat funky number half way called Let's Forget which brings to mind early LCD Sound System. They end with a short, thoughtful track named Deeper I Fall (probably their most instantly catchy) and call it a day. The applause is volcanic.

Ian Ross remains on stage, along with Lizzie Westcott (one of Pilot's violinists), while two more musicians step up to form Eleven Magpies (well, three guys and a girl). Ross (or Fluff to his friends) outlines the upcoming set to the crowd, and then counts in his comrades. When they begin to play opening three-parter Nidons, Long Stride and 11 Magpies, a grin plants itself upon my face. I love this stuff. The rhythm is secured by cello and acoustic guitar, while mandolin and violin break speed limits while winning prizes for accuracy.

Ross has somehow managed to write over a dozen folk songs, with lovely instrumental turns and hooks, and simultaneously allow each musician to outdo him/herself technically, over and over again. The tunes are so strong, however, that one doesn't need to constantly watch Alex Vann's (mandolin) fingers dancing; it's also just lovely to listen to. It's not all full throttle virtuosity; the middle of the set brings the staccato drip-drop of the snow-themed White Out, where violin, cello and mandolin pluck out the most memorable musical theme of the evening. Despite being blizzard-based, the continental twangs in the melody have me in the mood for an espresso on a sun-washed balcony. Then the band blasts through half a dozen more bite-sized folk gems, before ending with Gold Medal Flour, a track that doesn't stray from their speciality, but benefits from the added confidence that comes with being the coda to a killer set.

There is a small interval, allowing us those drinks we were deprived of earlier. Mya, the sweet barmaid, says sorry for the frosty start to the night, but I don't accept the apology; my mood couldn't be better after the quality of music so far. Now it's the turn of instrumental trio Three Cane Whale, the brain child of Get the Blessing member Pete Judge. Alex Vann returns to centre-stage, making me question his mortality, along with guitarist Paul Bradley, all white haired and distinguished. Pete thanks the previous groups, with a special mention of his cellist cousin from the previous band, and blows out a couple of test notes from his muted trumpet.

They open up with Standing Sun Fanfare, a slow quiet piece where the aforementioned trumpet tentatively outlines the clearest of brass melodies, while Vann and Bradley gently paint in the background. The next couple of songs are similarly instant, and the superior pedigree of the players is now completely on show. It's not that Vann is sweating even more than with the Magpies, or that Judge's cheeks are about to explode Fast Show style; it's just the complete relaxation on display as these seasoned musicians enjoy each others' company- like they've got nothing to prove; they know they're good, and so does everyone else. Again, words are absent throughout, but again, you don't notice.

There are pretty funny comments from Judge regarding 'Dorset rock', mostly when Vann's songs are coming up, and Bradley provides some nice moments when he has to alternate between his full size guitar and the smallest harp I've ever seen. There is a charm to the range of instruments on stage, but it never descends into novelty. Pete Judge holds court with the audience, like a rock star Heston Blumenthal, describing the sewing machine-like things his band mates are fiddling with, while he drags out vintage toys that serve the purposes he's been looking for- seemingly for years. There is even a diversion into profundity with the existentially named Look Up at the Sky and Remind Yourself How Insignificant You Are, a two-part track which would work nicely as theme-music to a windy coastal walk.

There is more Dorset rock in the form of Eddardon Hill, and soon the gig is all over. I clap along with everyone else, for a long time, and reflect on the show. It would be foolish to assume the cross-pollination between the bands was the secret to the quality; that would be like saying Dave Grohl is the only reason Nirvana and The Foo Fighters are great. What we have here is a fertile scene, mutual inspiration, technical chops, and organic passion. I can recommend every musician here, let alone every band. I'm sure at least one of them will be coming soon to a Later with Jools Holland near you.

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