The alt-folk revolution is inexorable and is taking over the control room.
If ten years ago Belle and Sebastian were a singularity in the rock scene, nowadays from Toronto to Brighton, Seattle to Liverpool harmonium, fiddles and brasses become cooler than electric guitars.
It was probably since Newport circa 1964 that the rock music wasn’t living such a strong affair with popular roots, acoustic sounds and bucolic feelings.
The latest battle of this peaceful war has been the conquest of the London Coliseum.
The English National Opera sumptuous theatre, opened for a night to psych-folk hippies in order to let them experience their favourite music in an exceptional setting.
The Coral are playing an acoustic set to promote their upcoming The Singles Collection.
Thanks to the great work of Deltasonic label, Liverpool in recent years managed to come back on the music scene as probably it hasn’t been since (and because of) The Beatles. Together with The Coral, the label signed The Zutons, The Dead 60s, The Little Flames and Miles Kane’s The Rascals who is also sharing with Alex Turner the leadership of The Last Shadow Puppets.
The first time I met The Coral because a friend took me to one of their concerts at the Brixton Academy, it must have been back in 2003. They were touring the second, brilliant album: Magic and Medicine. I remember it was quite a short gig, which disappointed me for the lack of an encore, nevertheless full of character.
With 2 sold out dates in the biggest London venue, it was revealing a band with potential and big aspirations.
As too often happens in music, quality doesn’t get along with success. The following release, a limited edition EP, the weirdly titled Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker who I rushed to buy supposing to sell out soon (it is still available!) got some synth in it and never touched me.
Their next 2 full length albums, The Invisible Invasion and Roots and Echoes contain some great songs but didn’t match the success of the beginning.
As a counterpart, interestingly, The Coral are one of the most appreciated British bands among musicians. Probably the only who can count among their fans both the Arctic Monkeys (who invited them to open their tour including gigs at Manchester Old Trafford stadium) and Oasis‘ Noel Gallagher, who joined them on stage for the BBC electric proms.
It is worth noting on their producers’ list, members of Portishead and Lightning Seeds.
The Singles Collection out in September, includes a now standard extra CD of rarities, covers and live tracks; another attempt to expand their public beyond the loyal fans. This London Coliseum concert was a perfect setting to stage that.
Waiting for the band to arrive on stage, I observe technicians tuning electric guitars, bass and positioning a keyboard and a organ next to each other. I wonder if “acoustic” tonight is being used in the same sense MTV was misusing “Unplugged” ten years ago.
The Coral have never been a hard rock band and I struggle to imagine an acoustic side played with electric instruments being any different from the standard line-up.
Nevermind. When the band enters the stage and four of them sit on stools in a straight line, I think at the cover of CSN&Y 4-way Street. My mind is set on “acoustic”.
Hopefully the calendar says it is 2008, Déjà vu is just a Neil Young documentary and these folks (oh yeah!) are young and born on the Merseyside.
A greatest hits set introduces most of The Coral classics in these stripped down versions. Played mostly on acoustic guitars, the best moments are when the ex rhythm guitarist now promoted to lead indulges on his articulate arpeggios holding his electric baby.
There is a special guest moment with Lightning Seeds frontman (and Coral producer), Ian Broudie, coming to help with a 12 strings on a couple of songs but, despite Broudie, what impresses me from start to finish is the reliability of their songwriting.
Four (and half) albums packed with high and lows but when they cherry pick their best, the entire set sounds incredibly harmonized and the crowd receives it enthusiastically. From the early hit Dreaming of you to the new singles Being somebody else I can’t perceive any sort of weakening, any lack of inspiration.
Among the singles some new tracks are thrown in. I was impressed by Green is the colour probably because of the audacious cloning of a Pink Floyd title.
A cover of Fred Neill’s Everybody’s Talking was a bit too much James Taylor to me, but the closure with the theatre singing along on Everly Brothers’ Bye Bye Love sounded pure delight.
The Coral are confident and strong to move their sixties psychedelic folk inspirations on the subconscious and join the front line of this alt-folk revolution with character. In the end they have been among the first and they clearly seem to know and indicate the way.
Their only problem will be to convince that growing beard and coming from North America isn’t the only way to play this music today.
Clearly accessing the London Coliseum without having to see an opera it is a great occasion to know this theatre. I don’t know were my unsympathetic relation with lyrical music comes from; being Italian doesn’t always help to love sopranos.
The problems begin since entering the building. I go to the guestlist queue to discover my name isn’t there. Never forget to ask and bring with you a printed proof of the agreement you reached with whoever PR.
Got the photopass thanks to a band manager, I ask the theatre steward where to go for the pit. He looks at me as I was a Venusian and tells me what pictures and that he is not aware of photographers tonight. Then he asks another kind of manager and I am escorted inside the theatre.
I am amazed by such a wonderful baroque venue with stalls, balcony, some hyper decorated boxes and…guess what? The orchestra pit!
I should have gone back to my early memories when my mum taught me how opera is staged, with the orchestra in a deep pit to let audience see the actors.
If you don’t know that, it is nothing similar to normal press pit. I am talking of a crater 3 meters depth and 10 long. It is impossible to take pictures from down there, impossible to get any close to the band.
The steward relegates me to the extreme right, in front of the emergency exit. I explain I can’t work from there. Even with my 200mm lens, which I found so impersonal in concert photography, I am too far away. I stop complaining and slowly slip towards the central aisles.
Playing hide and seek with the stewards I sneak to the right aisle and sit in a free seat of the very front row. More photographers arrive, to make life more difficult, we are too many there. I decide to move to the left aisle, I am alone. It works.
Sit on the floor I am hiding longing for the lights to go down to be unnoticed.
From here I can take some pictures, it is far away, no chance to move but it is the best place of the theatre anyway. Some photographers got access to the orchestra pit climbing some stools to get to an elevated position. I prefer mine, even because there is another spare seat on the front row. When the third song ends I assume that seat will stay free. I sit there and enjoy the concert without having to go to the second circle where my free ticket was allocated.
To summarize, if you are going to shot at the wonderful London Coliseum consider that:
Staff is not prepared to have photographers and do not have idea what to do with you.
There is a huge orchestra pit that puts you far away from the stage, don’t forget a telephoto lens.
The two aisles are the only spots where you can take decent pictures unless you have access on the stage (rare), or you have a seat in one of the boxes that look over the stage from aside.
You might be offered to shoot from the orchestra pit standing on some elevated position, your choice.
The acoustic is so good that you better go for a silent camera. If the concert isn’t loud enough anyone would hear your shutter.
If you are lucky that a free place is left, try to stay there and if you are lucky as me no one will come to kick you out.