Live Review: My Darling Clementine, The Stoller Hall, Manchester – 23rd November 2023

Photo: Nick Barber

The Stoller Hall isn’t the sort of venue where you’d normally expect to see the likes of My Darling Clementine. Part of the famed Chetham’s Music School, it’s a custom-built room that’s spare and somewhat brutal in décor – but superb in terms of its acoustics and sight lines. The connection with bringing the band into its space is that the daughter of Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish, Mabel Dalgleish-King is a student at Chetham’s and she was one of the additional guest performers for this one-off performance of Clementine classics, Costello covers and Michael Weston King solo songs.

The intro music, Timmy Thomas’ ‘Why Can’t We Live Together?’ eases into a theatrical slow lighting fade and the appearance on stage of Michael and Lou who begin with ‘Unhappily Ever After’ – no coincidence, I’m sure. It’s clear from the off that the sound is beautifully detailed, and it’s a great credit to the performers, both vocally and instrumentally, that they are not found in the slightest bit wanting, in what could be an unforgiving acoustic environment, so rich is the rendition of aural detail.

Photo: Nick Barber

The tempo ups for the next couple of songs, ‘There’s No Heart in this Heartache’ and ‘Going back to Memphis’ with the introduction of twangy guitar maestro Preben Raunsbjerg. So far, so good. It’s not until after a brief explanation of the expected order of events that things start to take a musical turn with the introduction of the first Chetham’s guest, Phoebe Mallinson (A BBC Young Musician of the Year finalist),  who added mournful trumpet to ‘King of the Carnival’  and thus set the musical template for the rest of the evening, with prodigious young talent adding texture, different dynamics and depth to songs otherwise mainly performed in a duo or small band arrangement. Mabel Dalgleish-King’s use of recorder and rich vocals add an innocent counterpoint to the adult issues of ‘Friday Night at the Tulip Hotel’, whereas in the Elvis Costello section of the first half set, Maisie Riley’s saxophone on the Costello/Jim Lauderdale co-write ‘I Lost You’, gives the song an earthiness. Ollie Pitman on French horn (and Mod-symbol boots) reworks ‘I’ll wear it proudly’ but it’s Ben Richards’ sensuous cello on ‘Eugene’ that was a personal highlight (and Lou’s too, but that’s another story. You had to be there.)

Mabel Dalgleish-King returns for a second turn, this time on piano, “We may as well get our money’s worth, after all she’s cheap!,” quipped her dad on the penultimate song ‘I No Longer Take Pride’ before the first half ends in trio format with ‘Jolene’s Story’.

Photo: Nick Barber

The second half followed a similar format to the first – two Costello songs kicked things in again – Lou on a beautifully melancholy ‘Indoor Fireworks’ before the return of Preben on ‘Either Side of the Same Town’. Ben Richards again showed his virtuosity and ability to sensitively support the melody of a song on ‘No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him)’ followed by two Weston-King solo cuts from ‘The Struggle’, firstly ‘The Hardest Thing of All’ and then ‘The Weight of the World’, with Lou on piano taking on Clovis Phillips’ role on the album. A non-Costello cover was the inclusion of Joe Henry’s ‘You Can’t Fail Me Now’ with added French horn, before the aching sadness of ‘Ashes, Flowers and Dust’ where Phoebe Mallinson’s trumpet added a beautiful last-post-esque poignancy before the final number of the second set, ‘The Embers and the Flame’ with Mabel Dalgleish-King returning on recorder once more.

There was time for the pantomime pretence of calling for an encore before the whole ensemble joined “with 3% of the Chetham’s choir” in a rarely performed and boisterous ‘Two Lane Texaco’ – but was that the real end? Of course not, there was still just time for a family rendition of ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and step forward Mabel Dalgleish-King. Given the chance to take a lead vocal, she delivered stunningly with a rich emotional delivery, establishing herself as a multi-musical threat.

Photo: Nick Barber

On a cold Thursday night in Manchester, there wouldn’t have been many better options than this – My Darling Clementine fans got reinvention, a varied and deep set, wonderful sound and some talented young musicians got the opportunity to perform in the cold heat of a musical situation that they were likely less familiar with, where a nod and a wink and a shake of the guitar replaces the conductor’s baton.

I hope they do it again…

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