Recorded before an intimate audience of just thirty people, 'Live at the Café 68' is York singer-songwriter Heather Findlay's second release since leaving as lead singer of progressive rock outfit Mostly Autumn in 2010.
It's a stripped-down acoustic album featuring fellow singer-songwriter Chris Johnson on guitar and vocals.
Billed explicitly as a duo rather than a Heather Findlay solo project, the EP includes as many Chris Johnson-penned songs as it does Findlay's, drawn both from Johnson's time in Mostly Autumn and from a couple of his myriad other projects.
Capturing the atmosphere of the evening with a lot of between-songs banter, the audience is very prominent in the mix. If anything, a little too prominent, but it is evocative.
Opener 'Phoenix' is the sole song taken from Findlay's début solo EP, with Findlay singing the instrumental parts in the intro. It works so well in simplified acoustic form it feels as if that was the way the song was originally intended to be performed.
hitting that sweet spot balancing precision with emotional depth
Without the power and energy of a full band, there's nowhere for anyone to hide, and the whole thing stands on the quality of the songs and the performance. Findlay has always been a class act as a vocalist, hitting that sweet spot balancing precision with emotional depth, whether it's fronting the full-blown wall of sound of Mostly Autumn, or the more mellow and delicate acoustic vibes of Odin Dragonfly. The feel here is much closer to the latter. Chris Johnson also deserves a lot of credit for his guitar playing, adding far more richness and depth than you often get from a single acoustic guitar. It's also interesting hearing Findlay using wordless vocals to replace instrumental parts, such as the original clarinet line on 'Blue Light'.
Apart from a cover of Gillian Welch's 'Dear Someone', which is perhaps the weakest song on the entire album, the rest of the set is made up of reworkings of older songs from Findlay's and Johnson's respective songbooks. There are a couple of Mostly Autumn standards in 'Caught in a Fold' and 'Evergreen', the latter working especially well acoustically. 'Gaze', a song originally hidden away on the bonus disk of Mostly Autumn's 'Heart Full of Sky' is sublime, as is the Odin Dragonfly number 'Magpie'. The latter is a great example of Johnson's subtle but effective guitar playing; effortlessly combining the flute and guitar lines of the original into a single guitar part.
subtle but effective guitar playing
Although the focus is on Findlay's vocals with Chris Johnson adding harmonies, he does get to sing lead on a couple of songs, one being the jaunty 'Out of Season' (originally by his band The Evernauts). The other, the dark and intense take on 'The Dogs' from Johnson's project Halo Blind (née Parade) is one of the highlights, performed as a duet with Findlay taking the lines originally sung by Anne-Marie Helder on the record, and ending with a few bars of her own 'Red Dust'.
The album closes with the Mostly Autumn number 'Silver Glass'. The original version from Heart Full of Sky had been a piano-led number with Chris Johnson singing lead. Transposed from piano to guitar, and with Findlay taking on the lead vocal, it turns into a spine-tingling performance that makes you wonder why she never sang lead on the original. It's not that there's anything wrong with Chris' original vocal, but hearing Findlay sing it lifts the song to another level.
The original performance was clearly a remarkable experience, and his record manages to capture a lot of that magic. There's certainly something of the chill-out vibe of Odin Dragonfly's "Offerings" on display here, and it's fair to say that if you liked that album, you'll probably like this. But there's also a far greater emphasis here on Findlay and Johnson's talents as songwriters, both with keen ears for very strong and memorable melodies.
Available from November 14th at http://www.heatherfindlay.net