Emma Ruth Rundle, Jo Quail – The Stoller Hall, Manchester – 21st August 2022
An evening of ‘less is more’ and two musicians, fresh from the Metal heavy ArcTangent festival, “playing to a bunch of metal people in a very formal setting.” Intrigued? Read on…
We’ve previously missed the chance to use the ‘Stellar at the Stoller’ tagline as the bands and musicians we’ve watched at this splendid venue have upped their game to match the palatial and inspirational surroundings. Not this time though. It’s perhaps been saved for a genuinely appropriate concert and two outstanding performances.
The Stoller is an apt setting for two women at the top of their musical game. Breathtaking in fact – as in taking the breath away – literally. How many of the sell-out audience (although a few empty seats/no-shows will be kicking themselves) spent a couple of hours in a reverential stillness should any attempt at shallow breathing cut the air?
Up first is Jo Quail with that instrument, shaped and crafted into something otherworldly that’s coaxed into otherworldly sounds that starts with Vigil where the pin drop atmosphere allows her to let the space do the work. She lets us know that Between Two Waves has graced the airwaves on Radio Three, so we get a reference point before the piece fills the air with an eerie breath of the sea. It has Jo declaring that the music is great to play live – “it’s why I’ve written it,” she laughs.
Gold – another of the five incantations – finds her setting up an urgent heartbeat of a pulse that contrasts with the soft caresses she applies with the bow. The drifting presence becomes increasingly frantic and deep as the layers build until the relief of the calm after the storm coda.
We can add a smug knowingness that after experiencing The Cartographer (our review) and another stunning support slot with Wardruna earlier this year, we kind of knew what to expect. One reason why you should always get in early for the support slot because unique virtuosity like this can’t be missed.
The high was maintained by an hour of Emma Ruth Rundle playing her “uplifting hits.” Yes, tongue firmly in cheek as she brought the Engine Of Hell album (our review) to life with just piano and guitar (although Jo is back on stage for Citadel).
Her presence is both humble and imposing. She cuts a vulnerable figure, her face streaked with what looks like red smears – possibly she’s been noting Gary Numan’s recent Intruder stylings. It adds to a sombre presentation requiring concentration and intensity as the inner workings of the piano glow golden like something wonderous from Pulp Fiction (remember that box?) “I have a Casio keyboard at home!” she adds as acknowledgment of the fact that even from the back of the room, you can tell it’s a beautiful instrument that contributes significantly to the presentation.
The fragility on show is evident from the opening seconds as Emma takes her place and the first thing you hear as she sits is a couple of breaths off mic while she composes herself ready to open up and display the vulnerability she’ sput into song. We’re going to get that close. Several moments are captured off mic as she switches between piano and guitar while making a request for the “psychic blanket” of reverb, which, while detracting from the intimacy, actually adds a quality to the vocal. She likes it and lets Cedric the sound man know.
As we reach the close of Engine Of Hell, she takes the trip into the other world, into outer space and then we’re free. Then that’s the end; although not quite as she eschews (as many do these days) the ‘leave the stage and stand in the corner for a while’ facade while an encore is demanded. We get a couple of encore treats including Pump Organ Song, written for former partner Evan whose spirit is still strong.
Ultimately, it feels redundant and embarrassingly futile to attempt to put into words the bare bones and dust atmospheres created by tonight’s events. Minimal, poignant and harrowing. A bout of therapy with a few hundred witnesses. Quite startling. Two musicians who are distinctly one of a kind.