Gigspanner Big Band – Stoller Hall, Manchester – 27th April 2022
It’s almost a year on from the most recent Gigspanner (trio) album From Poets To Wives and we’ve recently had the pleasure of a Knight & Spiers Both In A Tune set. The Gigspanner Big Band though…that’s something else altogether.
As if the Gigspanner trio wasn’t enough (the combo of Peter Knight, Roger Flack and Sacha Trochet having already earned a justifiably acclaimed reputation), the move into an expanded unit was a masterstroke. The addition of John Spiers – already working out as a formidable duo with Knight – in joining forces then the Edgelarks pairing of Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin frankly elevates GBB to the highest of heights; up where the air is clear and the Gods feast on ambrosia and nectar.
Their Natural Invention album (“a fantastic record that strides confidently from one highlight to another” says us) from 2019 is what they’re promoting on this album launch tour. All those musicians for whom a massive chunk of time has been eaten away, are now being welcomed back in droves to the concert halls and clubs around the globe. Here in Manchester, we’re at the Stoller Hall which I always see as a more compact Bridgewater Hall. ie, I can’t get lost finding my way back to my seat in one of the many sections after an interval… Very civilised and punter friendly indeed and anyone concerned about a Sex Pistols or Dylan ‘Judas’ style revolt after noting Mike Harding’s “they storm every stage they walk on” quote, need have no fear.
It is the music from Natural Invention that takes precedent in the two sets. The first seeing the six-piece hitting the ground running and encapsulating what was to come with an Awake Awake that allows both Peter Knight and Phillip Henry the chance to step into the musical spotlight. Henry’s shivering dobro (not to mention his harp) always adds something original to the band sound whether as lead or adding little jewels into the mix. The number follows a natural course, ebbing and flowing in a manner where time stands still as you’re transfixed into where this is leading. You could listen to this for hours – the ‘natural invention’ phrase (thanks FATEA) that spawned the album title, truly justified in the fascinating way the band push those boundaries.
New music is in the pipeline too and we’re lucky enough to get a tease. It’s in the form of a collaboration with Raynor Winn, entitled Saltlines, following the the theme of walking the South West Coast Path. The next few months will reveal all, but a sneak preview comes in the form of a song in Cornish; Hannah Martin may have had to learn a new language but seems a natural, before the arrangement shifts into Three Knights – another Cornish tune that saw the Steinberger bass broken out (not for the first time) taking the arrangement into a big and bold dramatic conclusion.
It occurs maybe at this point, of the significance of the role played by that the man at the back, Sacha Trochet, a long term Gigspanner-er who adds the depth to the overall sound with his hands on approach to the toms or by strapping on the base son the odd occasion. There’s a lot to be said for the patter of percussion in fol song, never mind the depth he brings. meanwhile, we’re on track with a hint of blues and Peter Knight soling wildly over the top of an ominous tolling on Betsy Bella And Mary Grey and up to the break with Daddy Fox. The latter all gorgeous harmonies and hoedowns. A perfect dance opportunity – oh if we were in a festival field or big tent… The perfect sort of arrangement for a big (or even bigger) band, which we hinted at in our album review, and the increasingly frantic tempo and we’re ready for a sit down.
Legs stretched, whistles wetted and retail opportunities sated, we find John Spiers shantying away on Haul On The Bowline and a reminder to note how Peter Knight’s fiddle is sooo distinctive. Try closing your eyes and listening without looking, picking out the instruments if you can – the Knight fiddle stands out clear and proud. Roger Flack then finds the metaphorical spotlight pointing his way in setting off The Butterfly; his acoustic lines setting the pathway for the strings to flutter and fly across, Knight already staking his claim for a second half man of the match. The fiddle duet/trade off with Hannah Martin possibly the highlight of the evening. Hannah at centre stage leads their version of Earl Brand, a classic traditional song well covered, still given their unique treatment and a chance for John Spiers to dust off the concertina while standing amidst what seems like the proprietor of a melodeon shop.
Hannah talks of learning Courting Is A Pleasure from Nic Jones. Run through her filter and then ‘gigspannered’ it might first appear a signature Hannah Martin banjo/vocal piece until the thuds and thunder kick in with a vengeance in the second part of the arrangement with Knight literally hopping through the solo. And for anyone who needs a reminder, what strikes home by now is the journey taken by the songs and the tunes and how they flow, morph and shape shift into a place altogether different from where they begin. There are several moment like that with the extended arrangements, passages and moods that you may have thought only appeared in progressive rock. Like David Byrne once sang, how the hell did I get here?
The Boy That Wouldn’t Hoe Corn is a Phillip Henry led gallop through Bluegrass fields and even has a twin guitar cal and response deul; Roger flack channelling a bit of Neil Young/Crazy Horse, wringing that neck, something he does in similar fashion in the blast that comes with the encore tunes that sees the outfit really letting rip in a mash up of French-Canadian-Irish boundary free joyfulness. Perfect for some fancy footwork, even from a seated position.
Some may talk of an entity being greater than the sum of the parts, but when each part is so outstanding in its own right, the coming together of such musical genius and flair in one space creates an embarrassment of riches; an overload of the sort that even even Mr Creosote (just one more wafer then mint?) might find hard to resist. Unmissable.
Gigspanner big band