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LIVE REPORT: Willard Grant Conspiracy
Grant McDougall , October 31st, 2013 08:19

Grant McDougall sees over the Americana borders at a night with Willard Grant Conspiracy

October rain weeps down outside and lightning strikes the projection screen. Pictures of the high desert in California are broken by lyrics and poetry. Robert Fisher's voice wells from the speakers and leaves space for a staccato viola to break into feedback.

This is midway through the European tour of the Willard Grant Conspiracy, and all is not going to plan. The viola player, David Michael Curry has had to hastily run around Dublin to get copies of their touring EP. Glancing across to both current members of the WGC during the support act, they both appear to be exhausted on a tour that has them going from Brighton to London, then Kilkenny, Cork, Dublin and Glasgow on consecutive days.

Ostensibly seen by the music press as Americana, and pigeonholed as such this is a small intimate gig on the back of their recent Ghost Republic album with a two piece line up, augmented by effects pedals and a projector.

This tag is reflected by the band with albums such as Let it Roll and positive reviews from specialist magazines on their website. A wealth of songs with 'Mary' in the title and lyrics, and ghosts of dead girls in wells, all add to this image. However, tonight's gig demonstrates something deeper at work here.

Ghost Republic is the imagined soundtrack to the vanished lives of an actual ghost town – Bodie, CA – but these tracks are embedded in the music tonight rather than played as a separate piece. Instrumentals from this album are merged into older songs from the early days of the band. From the opening tune of 'Evening Mass', through to the closer of 'Archie's Lullaby' this is gothic gospel with guitars. The backing slide show images reflect the themes of the Ghost Republic, but the lyrics reflect a darker reflective side. "When I think of you, I think less of me" is a punctuated refrain choked out in self doubt.

There is no sobbing at the saloon bar in these words, just self reflection while gazing over a harsh landscape. No typical country balladeer would pine by writing "when I think of you there is the bow and arch of tendons". These are songs of the impossibly bereft, of loneliness, mortality and human spirit.

The touring problems carry on during the gig as a newly strung guitar means that it's "one of these tuning shows". Robert clearly is fighting with it during many of the songs. He broods over the guitar, stops one song in its tracks and is clearly unhappy with the performance in general: thanking the audience for their patience.

It seems like a slight relief to him as he temporarily switches to harmonica for the Neil Young meets David Lynch 'Piece Of Pie', sung by David. Then the biblical acappella of the 'Ballad Of John Parker' takes the audience "down the long road where the asphalt is split" to a place where redemption is possible.

This music has more in common with the apocalyptic landscape visions of Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, or Ghost Of David-era Damien Jurado, and deserves a wider audience. Smiths –esque self doubt is layered in the music and the poetic words in the film background creates a space and a context to reduce the emotionally battered to tears.

Perhaps the audience reflects that it's been a while since the group toured. It is indeed a strange gig to take a date to, but I'd spotted a few young couples in the audience. Their chatter in the first few tracks dimmed to a quiet between song murmur, and shouts of encouragement during the last songs. Having carved out a performance in difficult circumstances WGC leave the stage looking shattered, and to the demands of more from a newly appreciative audience.