October was kind to us – although Cecil Sharp House has many performance sized rooms this particular gig was pitched in the garden space. With the wall and trees of the garden as a fairy-light lit backdrop in the fading Autumn light, and with a bonfire lit in a large oil-drum brazier, the scene had been set for an intimate micro-gig, with just forty or so attendees. Jon Boden accompanied himself on guitar and concertina, backed up by a string trio of Violin, Cello and Viola (Kiki Chen, Lucy Revis, Helen Bell). Without microphones the sound was augmented solely with the crack and spits from the fire as well as the rising and falling background street noise. This was all quite appropriate as this was the launch party for Jon Boden’s new album Afterglow, which is the sequel to Songs from the Floodplain and is set in the same post-apocalyptic future although on Afterglow the scene is a ruined city on the night of an annual festival which sees the survivors coming together for a hedonistic revel – and perhaps to find new love or renew old romances. It forms the second part of a planned trilogy of albums – the third instalment is expected to come sooner than the eight years between parts one and two!
Announcing that he’d be performing Afterglow in total Jon Boden set the scene for his story with Moths in the Gas Light, a delicate curtain raiser as crowds gather from surrounding hillsides and descend into the ruins. With his gently breathed vocals and the empathetic string playing the building excitement of the story’s protagonist was a palpable thing – the lights of the fires in the streets compared to the stars above, a double allusion as our hero is one half of a pair of star-crossed lovers kept apart by some unspecified external force. New tribal loyalties? Some evolving religious taboo? It’s not spelt out – in fact Jon is quite clear on this during the between song explanations and additional narrative: he has an image of this fictional world in his head but he doesn’t want to colour our image too far by over-explaining. Although having been told by John Spiers’ father that Burning Streets reminded him of bonfires lit on cobbled streets that had been tarmaced over, leading to rivers of flame running down the cobble edges as the tarmac melted this is now, officially, the image that Jon Boden had meant to write about – had he but known about it when he wrote the song.
There’s a gentle melancholy to many of the songs – the nagging doubt that things aren’t going to work out, that the lovers won’t meet or if they do they’ll be torn apart again by fate. The title track paints the scene for the evening’s fire festival, setting the observer apart from the festival to come “see them caught up in the undertow / the rabble riptide turning / iridescent in the afterglow / down where the barrels are burning”, the description punctuated by the dramatic percussive strings. Bee Sting and Wrong Side of Town have their recorded drumming replaced with a foot stomp – but retain the energy of the struggle through the crowd. It might seem unlikely that such a lineup can also be wildly dramatic and, yes, rocking – but the attack of the violin in particular on Burning Streets adds high tempo tension to a song full of chaotic running and leaping flames. In a different, and more anonymous, arena there might be the odd fist pump – it’s an exhilarating high-point which is followed up with the tenderest song in the set. Yellow Lights is heart stoppingly gentle, with the barest gossamer touches of languid emotion as love is found in the ruins and the debris of the modern world. The change in tempo from the proceeding songs produces an extra stillness, even the background traffic noise seemed to fade away in the emotional intensity. It’s a beautiful song, beautifully performed.
Jon Boden’s natural gift for theatrically was augmented on this evening as he became the master of coincidence. Clearly he’d had a hand in the timings – so when, on the song Afterglow, he sang “high above the city, sun sinking low” and described the festival crowd gathering “down where the barrels are burning” we found ourselves somewhat removed from the city streets, sat by a burning barrel as the sun disappeared for another day. However, other little touches were unplannable and just appeared by luck. Almost on time the fire let out an explosive crack from the burning wood during Bee Sting just before the lines “the night has just begun / the fuze lit by a spark”; during Yellow Lights for the first time hot embers floated across the audience as Jon Boden intoned “god only know what we are doing / passing in the dark / catch a falling spark” and when he sang of the moon “shrouded in the yellow fumes which cover it from sight ” on All the stars are coming out tonight right on cue the moon – darn close to full – started to push its way through the clouds. These are one-off unplanned experiences, never to be recreated.
In all this was a magical gig for its staging in a moonlight bathed garden and memorable in many ways beyond the gorgeous music. There’s really no doubting that more gigs would benefit from featuring a bonfire, hot mulled cider, toffee apples and parkin. The full acoustic presentation was bold, and hugely successful. The songs from Afterglow played in this stripped back way blended perfectly with the setting. Jon Boden is taking the album out on a full band tour in November, it’ll be interesting to see how he stages an eleven piece band – he’s set himself a high bar to reach to match the all-encompassing intimacy of this evening. All previous experience suggests he’ll pull it off though.
Moths in the gas light
Wrong side of town
Fires of midnight
All the stars are coming out tonight
Dancing in the rain