I arrived at the Bello Bar a little early, just before a queue formed that stretched all around the corner of the Lower Deck – the Portobello pub that houses this cool venue in its basement. I had come to this show because I knew I liked the support act and I was curious about the headliners. The majority of the folks queueing were presumably already aware of the brilliance of Anna & Elizabeth.
But first to the special guests, as they were billed. Rue are Radie Peat and Cormac MacDiarmada (half of the band Lankum) and Brian Flanagan. They are a side project every bit as unique as Lankum themselves, playing folk music originating in Ireland, England and the U.S., particularly Appalachia. Cormac plays fiddle, Radie concertina and harmonium, and Brian the five-string banjo. All three sing – and sing lead. They have a few great songs up on Soundcloud but no official release yet. Their set was excellent. Circumstances were ideal – great sound and a very quiet, listening audience.
The only song I knew was 'Katie Cruel', which Radie said she learned from Karen Dalton's version. The band seem to love slightly spooky-sounding material. Radie commented on the interval music and it was indeed great to hear Lal Waterson over the PA. You could imagine Radie covering Lal, or even Nico. I first became aware of what a harmonium was when I listened to Nico and I will forever associate this instrument with her. Cormac sang lead on a great song I did not catch the title of and Brian's banjo added a bluegrass-y vibe to the sound.
More and more people kept arriving and the venue was positively jammed by the time Anna & Elizabeth came on. People were sitting on armrests, on table corners and on the stage, after being urged to come closer by the girls. From the moment the music started the crowd was spellbound. You could hear a pin drop, and that with some of the music being very quiet. The sound was perfect. No humming monitors or anything that can mar acoustic shows. For the first hour no one got up to go the bar. Sitting in the basement venue with its atmospheric lighting you could imagine that you had been transported to a place back in time.
This was until the storytelling started and Elizabeth held up a laptop to play us a very old recording of a lady singing - think Alan Lomax-style recordings. Anna played along to it; then the Macbook was closed and the girls continued the song. This was the only element that gave away that we were in 2017. The other props were properly old: Paper fans (that gave the illusion of music when fluttered even though no sound could be heard at that moment) and crankies.
Crankies are like murals on a spool, and the spool is hand-operated. Images pass through the box that holds the spool, following the story or song being presented at that time. The turning of the spools made a pleasingly creaking sound. But then, even when Elizabeth slapped her thighs by way of percussion it sounded great. It was that kind of concert.
The girls put on an incredibly varied show, given that there is only two of them. Elizabeth LaPrelle has a unique voice, totally suited to this kind of material. Elizabeth is from Virginia and grew up surrounded by mountain music. She has released three solo albums. She plays banjo and a small hand-held harmonium. Anna Roberts-Gevalt is from Vermont, lives in Brooklyn, but has spent years learning from musicians in Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina. Anna plays guitar, banjo and fiddle. Their instrumentation is kept minimal, yet is utterly effective, again creating something that sounds a little spooky. Highlight of the show for me was a song that featured only vocals and distorted banjo, 'Greenwood Sidey' (a version of the Child ballad 'The cruel mother').
To contrast this there were also fast-paced instrumentals as well as a cappella songs. Elizabeth and Anna harmonize beautifully. They mentioned that many of the songs played will be on their forthcoming album, due out in March 2018, and that they will tour again then. Given how packed out this show was (on a Tuesday), a bigger venue may be a good idea for next time. There were other musicians in the audience too: Daragh Lynch and members of Landless. The Ye Vagabonds brothers were sitting right upfront at Anna and Elizabeth's feet. All in all a very special night with top class music.