Saturday 2 December 2023

The Slow Readers Club / Test Card Girl - Manchester Canvas - 1st December 2023

The Slow Readers Club played an extra-special show on Friday night at Canvas as the second part of their Manchester Mash-Up trio of shows. Accompanied by a wonderful seven-piece ensemble arranged by Joe Duddell, they performed a sixteen-song set of fan favourites and deep cuts that swerved many of their best-known songs yet held an audience captivated by the raw stripped down beauty of the music and Aaron Starkie's gorgeous voice. Support came from Test Card Girl.

Test Card Girl opens up the evening and she's nervous because she's a big Slow Readers Club fan which she mentions multiple times as she chats away between songs. The crowd are drawn into the self-deprecating chat - "your mum's come to do karaoke" comparing herself unfavourably to last week's support May Payne and talking about her outfit being modelled on a 1980s ice-skater who still likes to wear sports gear. If ever she decided to give up music, she'd have a pretty promising career as a stand-up comedienne.

However for now her music is winning her many admirers and she's likely picked up a few more on the basis of the response to her set. Performing solo, joking it's not fair that she doesn't have an ensemble behind her. In reality it probably wouldn't work, but songs like Don't Go, The Beyond and her debut single Holds Me Down are synth-laden ethereal pieces that suit her voice perfectly and provide a contrast to the between-song chat and this makes her a really fascinating proposition and great entertainment all round.

There's no Lunatic, I Saw A Ghost, Plant The Seed and Forever In Your Debt in the set tonight, four of their five most-streamed songs on Spotify, but Joe Duddell is no follower of numbers when it comes to selecting songs to work with as he proved with orchestral arrangements for James and Elbow amongst others in the past. They worked together at Festival No 6 back in 2017 but tonight's performance is far more ambitious in scope - sixteen songs with just one day's rehearsal to finesse them, but with an exceptionally talented ensemble to accompany them, this ended being one of the most triumphant moments we've witnessed with The Slow Readers Club to date and we've been there through all the high points.

They start with Afterlife and what's immediately clear is how good the sound is, you can hear all the differentiation between instruments and the arrangements give the songs room to breathe and allow Aaron's vocals to sit dead centre. The highlight of this year's Knowledge Freedom Power album is a great place to start and sets the bar high for what's to come. Aaron jokes that it's a bit fancy tonight with eleven of them on stage, but what follows is a magical journey through some of the darker corners of their back catalogue with a few surprises thrown in.

Cavalcade's title track brims with the tension that the strings create, the song stripped down and built back with a sense of natural urgency whilst old favourite Block Out The Sun feels like it could have been written for moments like this, if you forget for a minute the reception it gets at full-on shows. The arrangements, like so many of these, don't just put the ensemble on top of the song, they recreate and reinvigorate it with a sprinkle of some magic formula.  Two Minutes Hate, from 91 Days In Isolation, a song about the toxic nature of social media, feels more dramatic and its message even more potent, whilst Jericho, a single but not one of their strongest, has new life breathed into it. The crowd, save for a few chatterers near the bar who Aaron later politely chastises, are spellbound.

Know The Day Will Come, a regular set-closer in the Cavalcade and Build A Tower days, is brought back into the set and is given a makeover that really brings out both the lightness and darkness of the track. The arrangements feel like they're exploring the outer boundaries of the songs that have served The Slow Readers Club so well as they ascended from venues much smaller than this now-intimate 550 capacity to the city's biggest stages and it feels like a real privilege to witness this at such close quarters.

The rest of the band depart leaving just Aaron with the ensemble so everything is stripped down still further. Like I Wanted To sees them experiment with cello loops, courtesy of Polly Virr, an exceptional cellist in her own musical output, but who here provides the fascinating soundtrack to a song that they'd never played live before. Zero Hour from The Joy Of The Return and Cavalcade's Secrets and Grace Of God get rare outings in this form, the harp intro to Secrets in particular making the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. The ensemble, many of whom were on the recent James orchestral tour, have an intuitive feel for these songs as they did on that tour despite their unfamiliarity with them and they bring them to glorious life.

The band return and Aaron tells us that they're nervous about playing the next one. Sacred Song makes its live debut and is a genuine triumph and a high point in a set that pretty much never drops from that level. Everything I Own, like the previous 91 Days In Isolation tracks, feels particularly suited to this set-up, maybe because of the way it was constructed when the band couldn't be in the room together and the arrangements being crafted the same way helps to embellish the songs still further.

All The Idols and Something Missing, both from The Joy Of The Return, up the tempo as the set moves towards its close without losing the symbiotic interaction of the band's traditional instruments with the strings and bass clarinet. The one song from their five most streamed that makes the cut is You Opened Up My Heart and it's the penultimate song of the evening and the crowd join in with the chorus and the exultant message of "believe enough to lose control, where there's love there's always hope" and tonight somehow that message feels even more powerful. A quick glance around and you see people visibly moved to tears by the music, a sign of true magic being created. Those tears continue to flow with the final song Distant Memory, a heartbreaking emotional song about mental health that hits home even harder with the ensemble both in its quieter opening section and when all ten musicians let loose at the end as Aaron fights to make himself heard above the chaotic beauty of the song's final section.  There's no encore, none's needed and we're at curfew.

There's not enough adjectives in my vocabulary to describe just how beautiful this evening was. All around the room songs that mean the world to the dedicated fan base that The Slow Readers Club have built for themselves were presented in new ways that cast new light and detail on to them, perfectly juxtaposing the ensemble with the band and never coming into conflict and allowing Aaron's emotionally rich and detailed vocals the space to breathe. It'll be a gig talked about for years by those fortunate enough to secure tickets.

The Slow Readers Club played Afterlife, Cavalcade, Block Out The Sun, Two Minutes Hate, Jericho, Know The Day Will Come, Like I Wanted To, Zero Hour, Secrets, Grace Of God, Sacred Song, Everything I Own, All The Idols, Something Missing, You Opened Up My Heart and Distant Memory.

The Slow Readers Club's official website can be found here. They are also on Facebook and Twitter. They finish the year at Manchester New Century Hall (8).

Test Card Girl's website can be found here and she is on Facebook and Twitter.


Follow Even The Stars on Twitter at @eventhestarsuk and like our Facebook page for all the latest updates

No comments:

Post a Comment