LIVE REVIEW: Laurie Shepherd, Bethany Elen @ Bobik’s, Newcastle (26.10.20) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Real sincere hope is in short supply these days. Much of what we do hear comes in the form of cynical self-serving soundbites or sheer pig-headed delusion – each as divorced as the other from the reality we inhabit. Against this wretched backdrop, the optimism coursing through Laurie Shepherd’s debut album may appear equally out of touch. The distinctions are plentiful, but perhaps most pertinent is her rejection of short-termism in search of real material change, brought about not by influential individuals, but rather through the power of the collective. It’s a message that’ll likely be lost on those concerned solely with saving Christmas, yet Moon Moves the Sea is a record whose sights – and standards – are set far higher.

A broader mindset likewise fuels the work of Bethany Elen, whose solo acoustic set provides this launch show with an apposite opener. Tackling themes of social and political injustice – much of which feels intrinsically linked to Shepherd’s own focus on environmental activism – Elen seeks a similarly buoyant outlook, particularly during her closing rallying call Educate, Agitate, Organise. Even so, the most striking moments here are often those which cast her causes into sharp perspective. #MeToo for instance explores sexual violence with unflinching and at times horrifying candour, while an adapted Wheels Have Stopped Turning decries both the disenfranchisement of the working class and the smears aimed towards perennial scapegoats. That the former was penned prior to a lockdown that’s seen a substantial rise in domestic incidents and the latter under the rule of a comparatively sympathetic New Labour government merely highlights the grim backward progress the past decade has wrought.

Since assembling the personnel behind Moon Moves the Sea would swallow the bulk of Bobik’s socially distanced capacity, Laurie Shephard adopts a discerning approach to recreating her record’s luscious arrangements. As such, the core of this evening’s performance finds her voice and piano backed by cellist Penny Callow and the returning Bethany Elen’s backing harmonies; a modest configuration that’s nevertheless sufficient to elevate the likes of Home and This Moment to spellbinding heights. On occasion, this setup is pared back further still, emphasising the inherent quality in both Shepherd’s writing and singing. Spark, for one, is equally potent delivered solo despite sporting one of the record’s most decorative arrangements, while Old Oak Tree (following a switch to acoustic guitar) is a song of such splendorous simplicity that even its studio version shuns the temptation of bells and whistles.

Of course, there are moments where adornments are less dispensable; where textures and sonic landscapes are integral to bringing their themes to life. The latter stages, then, see the evening’s line-up completed with the addition of Moon Moves the Sea’s producer Liam Gaughan on acoustic guitar and Brendan Murphy, who contributes all manner of percussive luxuries. Ironically amidst a song cycle steeped with natural wonder, the decidedly man-made setting of Miles and Miles proves a particular delight as Murphy brings the drudgery of office life to the stage, hammering away at a computer keyboard as though filling gaps in a soul-destroying spreadsheet.

Ultimately, though, it’s left to Footsteps – a number celebrating the achievements and galvanising energy of the suffragette movement – to see us off with a crumb of hope. While their fight is far from over, one need look no further for a shining example of collective action making a difference – a timely reminder that protest and perseverance en masse can and will bring about cultural shifts. Featuring the full five-piece, its triumphant stomp is a rousing finale, and even in a one-third capacity room acts as a reminder of the communal joys only live music can arouse. Their setup may be unnatural, but should they be allowed to continue it’s gigs like this that’ll offer fleeting solace over the cold, dark winter ahead. And failing that, there’ll still be Moon Moves the Sea itself – a handsome, wholesome and rewarding companion even if worst comes to pass.

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