Thea Gilmore with strings: mainstream or lightning?

On my way to see Thea Gilmore play the Liverpool Phil last Friday I was having my doubts. The concert was billed as ‘Thea with strings’ and strings were all over her new album Regardless when I gave it a listen on Spotify. As a Thea fan since the early days I have to say that I was not impressed. Catchy and with echoes of classic sixties pop though some tunes are, overall the album seems over-produced: a little too slick, too mainstream.

Mind you, that seems to be what Thea is after just now: as she remarked onstage at the Phil, the album was knocking at the door of the top 40 (having been album of the week on  Radio 2 that week), and she urged us to go out and buy it because ‘for independent artists like me, these things do really matter’. The album eventually made it – reaching 39 on the week of its release.

Despite my reservations about Regardless, the Phil show proved that Thea and her band are still rocking it out, while the additional strings – in the form of a string quartet of musicians from Manchester – sounded less lush and orchestral than on the record.  In fact, the string arrangements were subtle and varied, reminiscent of the way in which Van Morrison integrated strings in his live performances in the 1970s (on It’s Too Late to Stop Now.., for instance).

Why the strings? Thea had told Seven Streets before the show that the experience of recording Don’t Stop Singing, the album on which she created music for unrecorded Sandy Denny lyrics, that led her to Regardless: ‘The Sandy Denny album allowed me to play around in a way that I never had with my own music and I liked the sound of my voice with strings. That had a huge impact and carried through to this new album’, she said.

This was only the second time on the Philharmonic stage for the Cheshire-based singer, having only played the Phil once before as a member of the Sandy Denny tribute show last May. But, as she told the Echo in another pre-show interview, she has worked in Liverpool, with producer Mike Cave, for the best part of a decade:

I work in Liverpool a lot. It’s become a bit of a second home for me. I try to explain to people – Liverpool is like a free state. Everything is different. It’s like entering another country. In the rest of the country there’s that British miserableness that at its worst wills other people to fail. But I’ve never seen that in Liverpool. There is this heart of community in everything – and people want you to do well.  I’m an Oxford girl by birth, but coming to Liverpool to work with Mike opened my eyes to a new city and I couldn’t help but love it.

The show opened with ‘This Is How You Find The Way’ off the new album, then entered more familiar territory with the lovely ‘Old Soul’ and ‘Beautiful Hopeful’ off last years Beginners EP.
Two more songs from the new album followed: ‘Start As You Mean To Go On’, which she jokingly introduced as her ‘power pop anthem’, and then the quieter ‘This Road’.  Thea explained that this was the first song she wrote after the birth of her second child: ‘the first time I picked up my guitar after what had proved to be a difficult birth and frightening first few months, this song fell out’:

This road ‘s a gift to you, my child
I will walk with you as far as I can go
Take your time, my love, take it slow
This road is the only one worth walking

The spell-binding centrepiece of the show was a pertinent pairing of her cover of the best-known song of the Great Depression, ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime’ with a spine-tingling unaccompanied performance of ‘The Amazing Floating Man’, Thea’s response to our very own banking crisis.  You could have heard the proverbial pin drop during her stunning rendition:

Roll up, roll up
For the best show in town
See him balance the books
As the markets crash down
And he never does much
But he does what he can
The Amazing Floating Man

Rejoined on stage by the rest of the band, Thea rocked out on the old favourite ‘Mainstream’, a song whose sentiment seems just a little ironical now: ‘Are you going to swim the mainstream? Or are you going to make that lightning?’  She followed that with several more songs from the new album: ‘Spit and Shine’, ‘I Will Not Disappoint You’, ‘Regardless’, ‘Love Came Looking For Me’ and ‘Something to Sing About’.

The show was rounded off by last year’s single ‘You’re The Radio’ and two contrasting songs from the Sandy Denny project: the dark and disturbing ‘Pain in My Heart’ and the anthemic ‘London’.

The encore featured a rousing ‘This Girl is Taking Bets’ and finished with Thea singing the poignant closing track of the new album ‘My Friend Goodbye’, accompanied just by Nigel Stonier on acoustic guitar.

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