Levellers (Collective) – Symphony Hall, Birmingham – 4th 2023
Symphony Hall? Sitting Down? No dogs? Terrific!
Even Mark Chadwick seemed to find it weird, as this expanded brand of his band sat across the breadth of the stage in this exquisitely grand concert hall, gazing out over four tiers of the near packed out Symphony Hall. “Are you dizzy up there?” I love Symphony Hall me, it possessing the best acoustic in the land, and oft causing wonder from many a bemused musician, awed by its splendour. But (the) Levellers? Hell, even seeing them indoors is a stretch, let alone here, and it seems such a long long way and a long long time from the Hummingbird, my last indoor exposure of them. And I suspect, a fair few of the grizzled road warriors present tonight were probably there too, but age and respectability had cut across more the majority present. Let’s face it, there are several ways, after all, eh?
The tour is to promote and present the second ‘Collective’ session of revamped and revived favourites, Together All The Way, in a broadly acoustic setting, so to bring out better the bedrock of folky tropes that permeate the band’s material. Less overtly orchestral than the first, on record, it’s a corker: we reviewed it here, so anticipation was high. Augmented for that disc by a double serving of Moulettes, Hannah Miller on cello and vocals, and Ollie Austin on extra percussion, also present tonight was a third Moulette, Raevennan Husbandes, on a bevy of other instrumentation and gravity-defying hair. For once, Jez Cunningham, with his turban of dreads, had competition on the coiffeur front. And it was grand to see how all six band members had all donned dinner jackets for the occasion. Not really; I jest, but what was grand was to see how Dan Donnelly has slotted in so well, officially taking the place of absent “but still a member”, Simon Friend, making the band now nominally a seven-piece. With he, Chadwick, and keyboards man, Matt Savage, hugging the front of the stage, Austin, Charlie Heather (drums) and Cunningham (bass) held the backline, with Husbandes sat next to Cunningham and Miller, sideways on, between the two rows, cello resplendent, and close to fiddle maestro, Jon Sevink, set just back from the front three.
Kicking off with the nuanced new take on Sellout, always a personal favourite from Levelling The Land, in this live iteration it bedded in slightly better than on disc, so much so that, come the chorus, all were singing along, gleefully, the different rhythms fully absorbed and accepted. The cello and the extra guitar, electric, of Husbandes, filled out the sound wonderfully, Donnelly plonking joyously away on mandolin. For this, and several others, Chadwick didn’t even need to pick up his guitar, emoting fully with waving arms, from his sitting position, something he made frequent reference to, gently chiding the audience that it was OK to rise from theirs. By following this with the traditional Lowlands Of Holland, they perfectly captured the point of this exercise, the join between this standard and their newer ones near indiscernible. Early doors came one of the album highlights, the stunning string-drenched Battle Of The Beanfield, showcasing perfectly the importance of Miller’s part in this project. Brought forward to the front of the stage, musically it was just her and Sevink, atmospherically chopping and scraping away, with Chadwick’s voice able to bring out the anguish and chaos running through this already chilling number.
Dipping between songs on this new album, and the aforementioned We Are The Collective from 2018, there was plenty to please. Drug Bust McGee, from that earlier set, gave the opportunity to demonstrate a different focus, with keyboard to the fore, rather than the fiddle, to make sure no possibility of Sevink saturation, were such a thing even possible. The rhythm section, should anyone wonder them poor relations in this setting, were a constant engine room of energy, Cunningham’s bass lines always melodic, mixed fairly high in the mix, with Heather and Austin clattering away in a tsunami tandem. Austin’s ‘kit’ covered all manner of territory, from the clip-clop of coconuts to a good old gong, with all manner of shakers and shakers on hand to boot. That pulse was further engaged by the rhythm guitar of Husbandes, sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric, just keeping the whole together. Donnelly alternated between guitar, mandolin and banjo, as well as bringing out a mouth harp to add extra welly where required. I confess I was a little surprised that there was so little of his singing, having understood he to be handling Friend’s erstwhile vocal duties. With a voice less, shall I say, abrasive, than Friend’s bark, I was hoping for a bit more exposure, it not even coming, other than as back-up, in one of the new songs, that Chadwick announced Donnelly had written, Man ‘O War.
Roughly midset came a perpetual winner, Julie, and the boys and girls were on a roll. Somewhere in all of this, and sorry, I forget where, the band squeezed in the other new song, Sitting In The Social, a great sea shanty singalong that, on first listen, sounds a little gauche, until the realisation hits, hard, that the naive simplicity expressed spells out the reality of today, in UK 2023. The audience, by now showing signs of sore bottoms, necessitated a gradual swell in those standing and/or jigging in the aisles, not always to the pleasure of the Symphony Hall staff, unused to such behaviour. When one punter leapt up onto the stage for a quick cavort, once he was sidled off by the roadcrew, stern words were seen being said to him. Not that he much noticed, gallivanting still further around the stalls.
It was good that Ghosts In The Water and Born That Way got a play, each neither on the Collective discs, if only to remind that the glory days are not all in the past. The parent album, Peace, from 2020, was their strongest offering for some good long time, up there, and on a par with Zeitgeist and Levelling The Land. Drawing over the hour, a run now of further fiddle-led songs carried the band towards a conclusion. The banjo rattle of Haven’t Made It was especially memorable, the strings swooping over the melody. The Boatman, another Levelling The Land oldie, allowed some slight reprieve from overload, the lyric always the MO for the band. Finally it was Cholera Well, which worked especially well in this format, the anthemic The Road and, to close, the singalong of Far From Home. Donnelly finally came into his vocal own for this, hollering the ah-oh backing vocal refrain with gusto. Goodnight and thank you, and they were gone, almost unexpectedly swiftly.
But didn’t they make us holler for an encore, with an old-fashioned lengthy pause before confirming any intent to return? Hope Street made for a suitably strident return, before the old Rev Hammer song, Down By The River ‘O’, as remembered from old Drunk In Public gigs, and which is also a highpoint on the new album. A glorious singalong, everyone was at it, even if the River of Joe remains elusive as to actually quite what it is. So buoyant was it I could have sworn there was a penny whistle in the melée. I wasn’t wrong, Husbandes had now added this to her battery of available instruments. Just The One made for a suitable conclusion, and off they went again, house lights up to reveal lots of sweaty grinning faces, ready for home. 90 minutes, top to tail, a good evening in good company, well spent.
If you can’t catch them, as the tour continues around the country, until March 18th, try another blast of Down By The River ‘O’: