Radical Face, The Scala, London – Tuesday 22nd November 2016

The Scala’s stage had been transformed into a magical winter forest – with bare skeletal trees adorned with tiny lights and a drifting mist from the smoke machine making for a Narnian backdrop for both Radical Face and their opener Austin Basham. In a checked shirt and bearded, of course, and sporting a wholly unnecessary – given the rising temperature in the Scala – woolly hat Austin Basham had the appearance of a woodsman, his axe in this case being an acoustic guitar. His set of delicately finger picked songs ranged from the mellow to the very mellow and his subject matter never strayed too far from wistful love, or frustrated love, or love shattered into a million sparkling flashes, falling to the ground like the snow that covers a frozen orchid, the gentle sighing winds, the flowing water or any number of other natural and meteorological metaphors.  This is fine – I dig love – but although he is singing of heartbreak and longing Austin Basham is too amicable and relaxed to really convey a heart pulled in a hundred ways. His pain, it would seem, is the pain of the past: he’s in his happy place now – and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

Radical Face – which is primarily Ben Cooper – is present in full band mode, and also were in high spirits. This was the last gig of the tour and there was a strange sense that the after-party had already started. Ben Cooper, and several other band members, settled down at the stage edge becoming indistinct figures to be rarely glimpsed between a forest of hands, ipads and phones. There was, Cooper offered, a choice: he just sings, or we get the stories of the songs explained – and he accepts the choice of the latter with a rueful “Well, it’s your f—ing fault now”.  Not that the explanations always help, a song might be about a girl who’s touch makes plants grow but is then nearly drowned as a witch when her mother discovers this – but you’d be hard pressed to hear that tale directly in the lyrics. The music though is sublime, a blend of Mercury Rev-like magical realism with elements of a Lumineers-like folkieness and a touch of Midlake’s rock sensibilities. That’s a pleasing sound for certain, even when it breaks down – as it does halfway through the second song Ghost Towns.  At fault is something in the drum setup – and the band’s bad luck is the audiences gain as the prepared set list goes out of the window and Ben Cooper covers the partial rebuilding of the stage arrangements by playing a couple of acoustic songs that Radical Face hadn’t been playing on the tour. These included the hauntingly beautiful The moon is down so good that a set like this wouldn’t be at all unacceptable.

Then, when the band are ready to go again there’s a return to Ghost Towns but things are still not destined to go fully to plan – with timing issues and a memory lapse on the lyrics. It’s ramshackle in places, but pleasingly so, these minor calamities seem in keeping with the band’s ethos and to fit in with the general air of things falling apart which permeates through a number of Radical Face’s songs. There’s a dark edge to Black Eyes in which we enter the mind of a disrespecter of women whose reaction to being thwarted in his controlling ways is to promise unsettling, and coldly emotionless, violence with a threatening “my heart will be blacker than your eyes”. It’s brooding and disturbing in equal measure.  Welcome Home is the set closer, the big sing-a-long hit that everyone has been waiting for. Musically it does sound like an outtake from The Hour of the Bewilderbeast – perhaps the nexus point where Fall in a river meets Stone on the Water – but its oblique lyrics heartwarmingly celebrate survival and the overcoming of adversity. A two song encore leads off with the powerful Wrapped in piano strings before finally coming to a conclusion with a Disney tribute that skirted the edges of an abandoned pandemonium. As Ben Cooper sang of “Robin Hood and Little John strolling through the forest” to just an acoustic accompaniment, the surplus to requirements band were free to interpret the song through the increasingly bizarre medium of dance. This soon descended into general mayhem – once the minimalist trees had been levelled they were soon ripped apart before the band finally stumbled from the stage for the last time. End of the tour hi-jinks to be sure but also a perfect high energy conclusion to an evening that had continually spun between barely contained magic and insipient chaos.

Set List

Summer Skeletons
Ghost Towns
The Moon Is Down
The Mute
Ghost Towns
Rivers in the Dust
Holy Branches
The Ship in Port
Sisters
Winter Is Coming
Black Eyes
Always Gold
Welcome Home

<Encore>

Wrapped in Piano Strings
Not in Nottingham / Oo De Lally

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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