Vieux Farka Toure
A spectacular set from an incredible group, greatly enriched by their entertaining and informative commentary.
Thursday 29th September 2016, 7.30pm
Yellow Arch Studios, Sheffield
My thanks to Tim Knowles for his thoughtful and insightful review below of the third TalkingGig at the wonderful Yellow Arch Studios venue in the heart of Kelham Island. The venue is proving very popular with the TalkingGigs audience - great ambience and sound, good beer and coffee, and incredibly friendly and helpful staff.
This gig featuring the wildly talented - and I hesitate to call them 'UK folk group' - Spiro. As ever, the format was tweaked to fit the band - with the 4 band members hosting their own 'workshop' session in the first half where they talked about their background, influences and music and gave brilliant demonstrations which really brought to life what they were talking about. And they responded to an array of thoughful questions from the audience - demonstrating their answer to one of the more technical questions, as described by Tim below. The second half was a blistering set of music from across their career. The energy and interplay between the band was a treat ... demonstrating a real 'democracy' within the band and between instruments. They really are pioneers on the UK music scene ... let alone the folk scene.
Finally, my apologies for the poor quality of the photographs ... my responsibility alone!
Bristol-based four piece Spiro are one of the most enigmatic and enthralling acoustic ensembles to have emerged in recent years. Whilst their instrumentation (accordion, violin/viola, acoustic guitar, and mandolin) and the origins of much of their repertoire would most readily identify them as a folk group, their music might fittingly be described as minimalist, or "systems" music, as their guitar player Jon Hunt prefers to call it. Their beautiful webs of sound in many cases began life as simple folk melodies, the band demonstrating, as an example, how their densely textured piece "Shaft" had
been developed from the melody to Bobby Shafto.
Spiro's iconoclastic style is the product of eclectic influences: Fiddler Jane Harbour studied modernist classical violin under the eminent Shinichi Suzuki, though thanks to the suggestion of a friend says she has come to see the potential string combinations of her instrument as akin to a drum kit. Jon and mandolin player Alex Vann are heavily inspired by their backgrounds in punk rock – perhaps most directly obvious in the energy and movement maintained by the whole band throughout the performance.
The group began life in the early nineties as the "Famous Five" but the name was invalidated by a line-up change. Before settling on "Spiro", they considered "Shards of Glass" and "Wormhole", hinting at the progressive sound the group were searching for. Translating from Latin as “I breathe”, their name wonderfully portrays the dazzling and expansive textures produced on pieces such as "Yellow Noise", in which the group simulate a delay effect I would never have imagined to be possible without the use of electronics. Much to my delight (and enlightenment!), this was succinctly
explained and demonstrated.
When asked whether they ever improvise, the group expressed an admiration for musicians who do, but emphasised that they place a higher value on playing tightly together. The impressive coordination of rhythmically complex parts has become the calling card of the group, and they refuse to designate a clear "lead" instrument in their arrangements. In an anecdote they fondly described the one time they had made an exception to this policy – when a towering Croatian singer was determined to perform with them (and who would blame him?).
The group performed material from across their five albums, providing intriguing backstories to the origins of their tune titles. The nursery rhyme-esque "Thought Fox" is named after a poem by Keats, for whom accordionist Jason Sparkes expressed great admiration. Their early composition "Lost in Fishponds" (originally released on cassette) was inspired by an unexpectedly lengthy drive to a gig in what turned out to be the wrong direction. Perhaps it was on such a journey – which, we were told, was quite typical for the band – that they discovered their mutual love of moths, inspiring "The
Vapourer". With tunes from the driving "I Am the Blaze on Every Hill", to the yearning and sweetly sentimental "We Will be Absorbed", this was a spectacular set from an incredible group, greatly enriched by their entertaining and informative commentary.