Smoke Fairies

It dates back almost a year, March 2009, my first e-mail exchange with the Smoke Fairies to tell them how much I was loving their music and I was looking forward to seeing them live.

I arrived earlier than Jack White for once, and I arrived early even at the first Dead Weather gig in London, at the Forum back in June. Not only because I was eager to see what could Jack White deliver on drums, but because the Smoke Fairies were the support act.

Unfortunately that night the ridiculously picky Columbia press office made photographers struggle to get the pass for the main band that was impossible to agree with them to shoot the support.

I had to wait six more months for the Smoke Fairies tour bus to drive my road.
During these six months, actually since that gig at the Forum, the career of the Smoke Fairies has boosted and grabbed a lot of media coverage, thanks to Mr Jack White III in person.

Farsighted as usual, the garage-blues-third millennium rock icon, the (ex?) White Stripe, (ex?) Raconteur guitarist, the present Dead Weather drummer and cult record label manager, White stumbled upon the Smoke Fairies . The two clever girls saw him drinking at the Hoxton Bar slipped their CD to a DJ and approached Jack sipping a whisky. Good move. He was impressed enough to invite them to open for the famouse Dead Weather show and soon after signed them at his Third Man records.

To be honest White is not the first star noticing the music of Jessica and Katherine. The retro Sheffield guitarist, Richard Hawley who called them to open his tour, described the couple as “frankly the best thing I have heard in years”.

I have never been a huge fan of folk and with so many girls “revival-ing” folk in UK (Laura Marling, Emmy the Great and add yours) I need to tell you why I am in love with the Smoke Fairies.

I think is the same feel Jack White got. What Brit folk lacks, for obvious geographical reasons, is a hint of blues. It is bucolic, it is angelic, it brings back to an ancient age where the world was probably much more dangerous but the feeling of it is peaceful and reassuring. It puts you on a floating boat in a canal, playing guitar harmonies over bird singing.

It’s an escape from contemporary world, which is in fashion nowadays. A friend referred to it as a protest against contemporary disillusionment, but still is a way to remove, more than face, inner and outer issues.

Smoke Fairies, thanks to a residency spent New Orleans, Louisiana and more up north in Vancouver, Canada put that bit of blues in their music. Just a hint of it, as a Creole spice makes a dish tastier, they spice up the songs and make them stand out from the rest.

They don’t play blues, in fact, but have a bluesy vibe that appeals to me and, looking at the excitement of people waiting for them inside a very busy Lexington, to many more.

Katherine (Blamire, the brunette Fairy) and Jessica (Davies, the blonde Fairy) met and play together since schooldays.
Their angelic singing over velvety arpeggios out of jazzy hollow-body electric guitars are ideal for a (once) smoky (now no-smoking) room upstairs at the Lexington.

I am glad to see from the stage, and read from the setlist stuck on the floor with notes of the songs chord progression, that the Fairies tonight are accompanied by a full band.

Their dark poetic verses about broken hearts, reflection on life and the need to be loved are going to have a soundtrack not only made by guitars but by drums, bass and the inevitable “folk instrument”. If in the latest Midlake is flute, tonight is a fiddle.

Before the gig I stop at the merchandise stall to have a look. It looks the Jack White/King Midas skills go beyond producing the record and well into influencing the way the band hndles its image.
Smoke Fairies, as anything happening on Third Man Records, are already cut as a cult band with sexy limited and special editions item, with their debut album still to be recorded.

The 7″ limited edition double A side single, is pricey at 5£. T-Shirts are quite expensive too. The 2 CD singles (Sunshine and Living With Ghosts) and the Frozen Heart 5 songs EP on plastic CD sleeves are rewrapped and packed into a nice cartoon box for 9£ (9 songs). Even the pins are free only if you buy something else.

The show opens with Frozen Heart the song that worked to seduce Jack White when met at the Hoxton Bar.
No wonder why it was a successful choice. Katherine slide shows what I meant with bluesy. It is not a blues progression, we are not talking about Bonnie Raitt. The song has the warmth feel of a New Orleans porch that stands on the background while their beautiful voices make the song stand out from any other folk stuff you can hear from British Islands in recent times.

With lyrics like this, the girls are on their way to conquer any broken heart around.

“You said I’ve come to hate your heart because it’s like the rolling sea
restless and hungry and only cruel to me”

Gastown follows and this is one of the two tracks with Jack White III not only at production credits but as a guest on drums bringing his faithful Jack friend, Raconteurs and Dead Weather bassist, Jack Lawrence, to the party. The song preserves most of the smoky-folky attitude and the electric switch in the middle which distinguish the architecture of their best songs. It makes me hope Jack will guest as a guitarist in some songs of the album.

Gastown is part of a double sided limited edition of a 7″ with River Song which will arrive later in the set. What will not arrive is Mr White in person (rumours are always spreading around him) that in the end is a good thing so the scene can be all for Katherine and Jessica.
Two songs in, me and the audience are already in awe.

With a bunch of singles, an EP and the recent 7″ you may guess the setlist is pretty much their entire repertoire, but Smoke Fairies have been together for quite a while, old songs have been fine tuned to perfection and new ones with an album on the diary are being tested live.

The song list follows with three tunes, played with the band, Henry 8th, Storm Song and Summer Fades which do not result (to my incomplete knowledge) published somewhere. When the band leaves, the Fairies delight the crowd with the help of their guitars and voices. It’s time for Goodman and Living with Ghosts, their very first single. The lyrics adventures in eternal doubts, I am very sympathetic with:

“It gets hard when the time you’re living in is not for us”

Troubles sees the viola player joining them back in another idyllic immersion into an heavenly place with the two interpreting the part of the angels.

The band is back for Morning Light from the EP, which starts the closing triad.
River Song is the other A side of the Jack White produced single and is another interesting example of how a music that seem to take off around a new-age Enya-like Celtic guitar plucking, moves into a much more interesting field when Katherine Blamire plays a less reassuring electric introspection.
Sunshine, another single and one of my favourite songs, is defined by the insisted, stomping line “Show me your love is real” which becomes a very efficacious mantra. It’s easy to get trapped into the singing to the point of replying “it’s real, indeed”!

Devil in my Mind is the one song encore (despite two + one where ready on the setlist). The girls can feel the show reached is apex and stop it here, leaving the entire audience clapping for more and looking forward for the next.

Next which is not yet scheduled. Katherine and Jessica are busy recording the album and are scheduled live only for Austin’s SXSW. The step to be to break through. In the case you are there you should not miss them, otherwise there’s the
[Website] [Myspace] [Facebook] and [Spotify] to explore.

Wow… I resisted to write a review without saying a single word on how beautiful they look… just!

Photo tip

B&W Film or Digital (colour)?
Not really a photo tip, just a series of early personal considerations open to be reviewed.
I bought a DSLR recently for other purposes, travel and documentary photography mainly.
If B&W film to me still has a edge on B&W digital, (debate open!), and spending hours in a darkroom is much more fun than on a computer lightroom (debate not open!), digital colour photography has overtaken colour film. Unless you work on medium or large format or for special purposes, nowadays slides (even more, colour negatives) really have not a reason to be used in my opinion.

Despite I have no intention to stop shooting contemporary music on film, my ever growing archive is probably the biggest of modern bands and I will expand it until last films are sold, that couldn’t stop me giving the new DSLR a try.

This comparison is purely subjective.

Monochrome helps concert photography because don’t have to bother about color temperatures and colourful lights. Whichever gelatine filter is in front of the spotlight, it will be white on B&W.
Lack of colour subtracts information to the viewer allowing a deeper look into the character of the subject. A colourful necklace can distract the attention from the depth of the singer eyes if its colour stand out. That’s why B&W photography looks more intimate.
Film has the disadvantage of limited exposures, 36 each cameras. If it is a 3 songs set you won’t have time to change film. This gives your photography a complete different attitude. You think more, click less.
On film you can’t see the results and adapt accordingly. I am used to it but it is something to consider and you must handle the technique to avoid getting home with nothing usable in your hands.
Films are lower ISO, I shoot 400 films pushed to 800-1600 ISO (I don’t like 3200 ISO films) but you can’t really go further than that. This means, especially in clubs like this, the need of very fast lenses, likely f/1.4-2.0 primes. Then bothering to know which one to have mounted and ready to change them quite often.

Digital Colour have the advantage of the colour, as simple as this. For the exact parallel reason of B&W colour can be important. Shoot a Jamaican band or an African ensemble in B&W images might lack something. The effervescence goes along with colour. If colour matters is nice to have it.
Digital colour main advantage is not the “colour” but the “digital”.
Shoot raw and you can correct any dominant at home or even in due course. Something unthinkable on film.
Digital Colour technology reached an amazing delivery at high sensitivities. I was shooting at 6400 ISO with no noise! Colour + 6400 ISO is unprecedented in classic photography. No colour film has ever got even closer with a decent result. This technology consents a combination of shutter speed and white balance to shoot live music pictures who haven’t been taken in the past. Because it was impossible.

~ by Valerio on February 11, 2010.

3 Responses to “Smoke Fairies”

  1. oh yeah I remember them supporting dead weather at forum! I think we had a beer as they played?! ;)

  2. hello, thank you for the very informational blog/post. i rarely shoot live music in color but when i have always wondered which would have the better outcome for the band and for artistic purposes. i am intruiged with your usage of 400 ISO film pushed to 800 or 1800 ISO. I have done this with 100 ISO pushed to 400 with great results but it never occured me to do so with even higher speed film so I thank you very much!.

    Are these photos above used with this process? (400 pushed to 800)

  3. Hi Katerina,
    Haven’t read your comment sorry.
    The b&w shots are on film, Ilford delta 400 pushed at 800-ish, I use my own procedure for developing the films, you’ll find it on the photo tips.

    The colour ones are digital, I tried to shoot gigs on colour film but it is not worth, digital raw files allow a control of the whites that is paramount to better images and high sensitive colour films aren’t as good as b&w so I wouldn’t suggest unless you have particular reasons.


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