At Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the RGM team reminisce about the range of artists we’ve had the pleasure of seeing on its stage over the years. The very fine grade II listed building was used for nearly forty years as the BBC Television Theatre and, since becoming a music venue in 1994, it really hasn’t changed much. This is something of a comfort, particularly with the bleaching of Soho and the razing of the surrounding areas having deleted some much-loved venues from the capital’s landscape. So, the Empire feels a bit like home. And, in a certain way, Darlingside have made the UK feel a little like home too. They have - deservedly - come a long way since we first featured them in 2016: they’ve appeared at the Cambridge Folk Festival, earned a live session on the BBC Radio 2 Folk show and toured the UK several times over; graduating from London’s Slaughtered Lamb via the Union Chapel to a headline show here at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Or should I say “Shepherd’s Empire Bush” as chief banterer Harris Paseltiner (guitar/cello) initially refers to it. They’ve been looking forward to the show for a long time but have been syntactically confused about its name until their arrival…
The quality of the between-song verbiage is almost equal to the jaw-dropping musical genius of the quartet. It’s a genius that has kept us coming back for more and is laid out perfectly in 2016’s Birds Say and 2018’s Extralife which are, quite simply, albums no-one should be without. But, before I get carried away, we must turn our attention to tonight’s support, Wildwood Kin, who deliver a short but stunning set. The three-piece family band from Exeter are a modern folk success story; they’ve backed Seth Lakeman and played on The Old Grey Whistle Test revival show. They pack a serious punch on this stage with Meg Loney’s scaled-down, stand-up, cymbal-less drumkit pounding out on favourites from their debut album Turning Tides. Meg is flanked on either side by Beth Key who handles bouzouki and keys and Emillie Key on guitar. The trio’s most heart-winning asset is their glorious three-part harmony vocal which, again, is made all the more powerful by the Empire’s huge sound. Singles ‘Taking a Hold, ‘Run’ and ‘Steady My Heart’ are all well-received (the latter boasts a haunting Fleetwood Macishness) but the highlight is the breathtaking album track ‘On and On’. The ladies are in the process of making their second record and, if tonight is anything to go by, Wildwood Kin are definitely a band to keep a close eye on.
As is their way, Darlingside all gather around a central mic and open with ‘Singularity’ - foregrounding bassist David Senft’s plaintive vocal - and the wonderfully eight-bit noises of ‘Eschaton’ - both from the current record. The clustered setup makes for slightly tricky visibility on the larger stage but is nevertheless an important part of the band’s organic sound, as the volume of each singer gently fluctuates with their proximity to the mic. Then comes the first round of wordfoolery around the venue name. The entire set is peppered with this geeky wit, covering everything from the mention of a ‘lovely quiche’; interchangeable Anglo-American cockney rhyming slang; the deductive reasoning required to operate the shower in the band’s dressing room; ‘an eventful breakfast’ (which springboards into Auyon Mukharji’s deadpan introduction of each of member via what Harrison learned during the meal) to - my favourite - a stiff examination of the pronunciation(s) of the word ‘squirrel’. All this nonsense is, of course, part of Darlingside’s charm and serves as light-hearted balance to the elusive spirit of the songs.
They continue with a trio of tunes from the Birds Say album: ‘Go Back’, ‘White Horses’ and the bouncy ‘My Gal, My Guy’, which has some impressive rubato, indicative of the band’s total musical synergy. This is contrasted by the floating solemnity of ‘Lindisfarne’, while both ‘Extralife’ and ‘The Ancestor’ prove every bit as sublime as their recorded counterparts. Don Mitchell’s synth on the former chimes neatly with the dizzying mirrorball lighting and the latter is just plain lump-in-the-throat beautiful.
Soon it’s time for Paseltiner to switch to cello for the playful ‘Harrison Ford’, replete with a stripped-down vocal section that is pure Sesame Street. ‘Orion’ and ‘Hold Your Head Up High’ bring the set towards its end and the band conclude by inviting Wildwood Kin back onstage to join them on ‘Blow The House Down’ from the 2012 debut LP Pilot Machines. The smitten crowd are rewarded with a two song encore: ‘Best Of the Best of Times’ and ‘God of Loss’.
On record, Darlingside really are a band like no other but it’s staggering to witness just how delicately balanced (and - frankly - in tune) they are in the live setting as well. Tonight they turn in a performance that is flawless and fun in all the right ways and we just can’t wait until the next time Darlingside get on a plane and come home.
Review by Rich Barnard.