Smoke Fairies + John J Presley, Hoxton Hall, London, 6th February 2020

After a four year absence Smoke Fairies (Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies) have returned with a new album, the wonderfully drone heavy ‘Darkness Brings The Wonders Home’, and a smattering of gigs with more promised for later in the year. The new album takes their  sound further into the rock realm although they never really leave their roots as macabrely dark folkies behind: it’s the same sound but with the waves of unease carried on a more powerful medium. And here they were at Hoxton Hall – as near perfect a venue for their augmented band as one could imagine.

Hoxton Hall is a cool little venue with a standing area in front of the stage and two tiers of balconied galleries rising on either side. The shape and the iron work fronting the raised seating areas give away that this is a rare surviving small Victorian Music Hall – its survival due to its early loss of a licence which saw it taken over as a Quaker meeting hall. A couple of strange things were that this gig had been listed as sold out for some time – but there was clearly significant room still available on the balconies – and something strange had happened to the audience. This reviewer caught Smoke Fairies at The Scala about five years ago – and the audience was a mixed one, there were people present who were younger than the band. I know, that is not the usual turn of events. On this night though something had happened – the audience was predominantly male and predominately greying. What had happened to the fickle cool kids?

The plush red velvet curtains were already pulled back from the stage to reveal a stage full of guitars and amps ready for an evening of deep bass throbbing psych-folk meets haunted slide guitar blues. Naturally the smoke generator was already hard at work even before John J Presley and his drummer took the stage for a short set of psych-blues that emphasized the importance of guitar wildness and the primal and primary importance of feedback in the service of music. Everything is liminal, on the cusp of disaster – even when Presley sings of a field in which his love waits, the image is more of a meeting at dusk, in a field of waterlogged heavy clay, with a storm brewing not too far away as his guitar flashes like lightning. Whilst it’s true that he made his Hohner axe scream and moan producing a mind shaking sonic assault that could block out telepathy in a five mile radius it’s done with style and elan. Raw as hell, it’s rock ground down to the very essence.  There might have been a touch of, “Follow that!” in the set if it wasn’t the case that John J Presley returned on bass / guitar for the Smoke Fairies’ set.

If the audience were somewhat different, Smoke Fairies seemed unchanged by an interval of years – Jessica Davies has that elfin ice queen vibe going on whilst Katherine Blamire exudes a bashful shyness hiding behind her fringe. Opening with ‘Super Tremelo’ there’s that instantaneous thrill of the sinuous vocals and buzzing guitar licks and the perturbing imagery of a disturbed mind only half connecting with reality. The ghoulish ‘Chew your Bones’ blends Smoke Fairies’ signature hypnotic drone and spellbinding vocals with a pagan imagery that’s one part lust and one part wickerman, and there’s a similarly strangely disturbing imagery on ‘Out of the Woods’ which featured Presley on deeply growling guitar for a song that’s part anticipatory of a meeting and part dread of some unnamed madness. It’s like one of those unsettling mystical-edged children’s series from the Seventies condensed down into just a couple of minutes. Is it any wonder that in Manchester audience members had been asking if they could “Join their cult?”

Summer Fades’, from their last album ‘Through Low Light and Trees’, brought a more melodic element to the evening for a song of failed love, with the pair blowing softly on the embers to see if they’ll rekindle “through the coldest months I held onto a dying hope that flickered in you” before asking “Can you hold me like you held someone you shouldn’t have let go?” ‘After the Rain’ spins those feelings on their head, as over finger-picked guitar there’s a confession of a loveless relationship – “I only feel alone like I don’t know who’s sleeping in my bed” is less wanton promiscuity but rather a realisation that despite apparent closeness you really don’t know somebody at all.  These flickers of light and shade, of hope and bleak despair, colour a lot of Smoke Fairies’ output, perhaps caught nowhere better than when they offer rocking out as a resolution to drifting apart on the groovily driven ‘Don’t you Want to Spiral Out of Control?’ Well, yeah, of course – if it means listening to this perfection of vocals and glimmering spectral folk-drone-rock. If there was one small downer on the night it was that just over 60 minutes is a short headlining set for a band with a half-dozen albums under their belts. Otherwise – bring on the autumn tour.

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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