Live Review: The Staves, The Barbican, London – 22nd November 2022

The Staves – Emily Staveley-Taylor, Jess Staveley-Taylor and Camilla Staveley-Taylor – can fairly be said to be indie-new-folk superstars since shortening their band name from The Staveley-Taylors to the more punchy The Staves and releasing the album ‘Dead & Born & Grown‘ to great acclaim some ten years ago.   This gig was the first of two sold-out nights at The Barbican to celebrate that debut with a full album performance with a twist – it’s the album in the right order but it has been stripped down and re-imagined for just three voices and the barest of accompaniment on acoustic guitar and concert ukulele.  It feels like a natural approach, and fits with the thoughts captured on the “anniversary” cards that had been placed on every seat which read:

It’s been ten years since we put out our debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, It feels like looking at a photo album now, Snapshots of the women we were then, Stepping into the unknown.  What a trip! Thank you for being in this journey with us And for still showing up and allowing us to keep doing what we do. Here’s to the next 10 years….”

There’s certainly a lot of love in the room for The Staves – the applause when they took the stage was nothing short of rapturous, and that mood continued throughout.  And it’s deserved – the harmonies on the a cappella ‘Wisely & Slow” were instantly absorbing, the situation of something being mourned endlessly open to self-interpretation.  Everything isn’t just beautiful though, as a song like ‘Pay Us No Mind‘ makes clear with it’s weary acceptance of the end of a relationship that’s been dragging on too long “You are right and I’ve been wrong / to tarry here for far too long / pick me up wish me luck fare thee well / I don’t give a fuck anymore.

Despite their connection with the greater indie-folk scene through associations with the likes of Bon Iver, The Staves eschew that whole lost in the wilderness as a metaphor for emotional states approach, there may be wintery motifs and trees but there’s an urban feel to their songs with topics including teenage angst, love – and being dumped, and love no more – and being the dumper.  Relatable, in a word – these are things that could be happening on one’s own street, in one’s own town, in one’s own life.  The Staves also eschew earnestness – they drop easily into sisterly banter between beautifully harmonised songs, joking that they “don’t even really get on that well”  which provokes Emily to whisper to the mic’ “we’re not really sisters…”  Emily also frequently heads off in the direction of mocking self-criticism in the voice of an older, male muso who has an opinion on everything, such as the lack of a band, the cheapness of the tickets and the possible folly of just singing the whole first album in the same order.  He is, she says, “our biggest fan and our biggest critic.

Progressing through the album, Camilla introduced the title track with an explanation of how it came from her moody teenage self, trying to come to terms with life and…everything…and questioning her own existence, asking “am I here at all?”  It’s a more percussive song, less dependent on those beautiful harmonies.  With a return to unaccompanied singing there was they thought, perhaps, the first live outing of ‘Snow‘, with an emotional coldness falling “if I knew what had pushed you so far from my heart or my mind / well would it give you comfort or strength of some kind / Or would it give you peace as I leave you behind?” before the final song of the album the country leaning ‘Eagle Song.

Having completed the album and taken the long standing ovation, The Staves returned for what was described as “A longcore” because, well, one album does not a full gig make.  They had a plan though – each of the next five songs came from a later release in chronological order starting with ‘Icarus‘ from the Mexico EP – and if anyone had yet to be won over by the power of a single guitar and three voices at a single mic’ stand then this was surely the point to buckle – the harmonies here soared and swooped and made this big space into the most intimate of venues, just perfection.  As was the Laurel Canyon serenade to the mixed joys of touring that is ‘America‘, naturally enough written whilst touring the States with the ‘Dead & Born & Grown‘ album.  It’s weary, and whoozy and thrilled – contrasting the selfishness of grabbing the best bed to the not-so easily admitted attractions of the experience, the chorus after all is “do not disturb me ’til morning” and not “just get me home…“.   The encore came fully up to date with the title track of the new album ‘Good Woman‘, which on the album is somewhat akin in sound to ‘Van Occupanther‘ era Midlake, but here in its stripped back form takes on more ambiguity.  “I’m a good woman” is, after all, something one would only say in response to a cruel suggestion of being otherwise.  It should have been a great closer – and it was, but at the risk of embodying the spirit of Emily’s older, male, over-earnest music enthusiast (hmm…) it was somewhat undercut by the appearance of a photographer stalking the group around the stage and effectively photobombing them, in an ironic move worthy of French & Saunders or Mr Bean.  Not, perhaps, the final thought intended – but one small misstep does not a concert ruin – and this had been a gig just stuffed full with magical moments, and the acoustic throughout approach had been a huge success showing off what really makes The Staves special, the voices and the precision of the word choice in the lyrics.  Magical moments – and a lot of laughs.

About Jonathan Aird 2724 Articles
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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