2019 has been a breakthrough year for Ferris & Sylvester. With slots at various festivals, including Glastonbury, Black Deer, Isle of Wight and Americanafest in Nashville, the duo has been reaching out to new audiences and winning over plenty of fans. Their rich Americana sound is a blend of influences – blues, pop, country – and after well-received singles and the EP, ‘Made in Streatham’, they are steadily building up to the release of their first full length album. Judging on this performance at The Portland Arms, taking their time over things, honing their song-craft and on-stage delivery, is proving to be a successful strategy.
The Portland Arms is an intimate space, in which the audience and artists are physically close, creating an enjoyably dense atmosphere. On a rainy Monday evening, Ferris & Sylvester drew in a small, but appreciative crowd. Anticipation was high, especially when singer-songwriter Roseanne Reid walked on stage to provide fabulous support. Reid’s soulful debut, ‘Trails’ is a heartfelt, delicate record that has been lauded by the likes of Steve Earle. Reid treated the crowd to an eight-song set, during which she was often lost in the music along with the respectful audience. Her songs are remarkably consistent and absorbing and they translate well into a solo acoustic performance, showcasing her quietly characterful voice. Highlights included the first single from the album, ‘I Love Her So’, and a new song, ‘What Constitutes a Sin’, which has a beautiful melody and lyric. Reid won the Lyric Only category at the Nashville’s International Song Competition with ‘Amy’, seeing off competition from 160,000 other entries. It’s an older song written about a girl called Charlotte (cue laughter – it was too hard to find rhymes for Charlotte!) and this was another high point in her set.
After a short break, Issy Ferris and Archie Sylvester took to the stage, launching straight into the popular upbeat single, ‘Better in Yellow’. Their energy and grooving guitars were a distinct contrast to Reid’s more intimate finger-picking. Aided by a strong beat on Sylvester’s powerful kick drum, they continued to rock out to ‘Our Love is an Awkward Thing’, full of wailing vocals and Ferris’s dynamic movement as she played. Her wide-eyed, smiling, jigging passion was infectious and the audience responded with enthusiasm. The new single, ‘I Dare You’, built slowly and atmospherically before Sylvester’s screeching solo ripped through the song, one of the many occasions when he rocked out hard and displayed his skilful guitar work. The duo then took turns to sing on ‘Red Right Hand’, which was boosted by a pounding drum and raucous, caustic guitar.
It was a strong opening to the set, which never really let up in intensity, even when things calmed down for the expertly crafted ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Flying Visit’. When they sing together, either in unison or in harmony, Ferris and Sylvester’s voices blend gorgeously. Both songs have beautiful melodies and the audience knew them well enough to sing along.
Another highlight was the anthemic ‘Burning River’, in which the audience helped provide the dramatic, shouted staccato chants to accompany Sylvester’s driving guitar. This is a song written to be performed and to engage a live crowd, all colliding, crashing noise. The gently atmospheric ‘Sickness’ provided a well-timed change in pace to close the main part of the set. For the inevitable encore Ferris & Sylvester played the aching ‘This is How My Voice Sounds’ and the rolling, energetic ‘London’s Blues’. The former was one of the evening’s strongest songs, with Sylvester’s vocal entwining well with Ferris’s repeated, “This is really how my voice sounds.” There was a real moment when the song was reduced to just Ferris’s vocal before Sylvester’s powerful solo kicked in.
This was Ferris & Sylvester’s first time headlining in Cambridge, in the middle of their biggest tour to date. They are developing a clear identity and strong sound, noticeably more intense, bluesy, rocking and loud on stage than on their single and EP releases to date. The energy in their performance is infectious and their vocal combination is often striking. When they head out on the road again, in support of the full-length LP expected next year, they can expect their audiences to grow as word continues to spread. Highly recommended.