There’s a line of thinking that says you’re not really a fan of any band until you’ve heard them play live. That doesn’t say much for this generation of Beatles fans, but if you have any kind of love for folk or rock music, then one particular band’s madly beautiful fusion of the two is apt to start you down the path to dedicated fandom.
One breezy evening in Manchester, Ellen and the Escapades are assembling at one end of a back room of the Castle Hotel, all but nose to nose with their audience. A guy’s leaning his elbow on the keyboards at one side of the room; on the other, a girl sits against a radiator to avoid a clout from the bass guitar. ‘Intimate venue’ doesn’t quite cover it.
‘Run’ is technically the first song, but it almost feels like an overture, played slow and elegant to ease us into the set. Like a film’s opening narration, it sets up key ideas and offers a glimpse of stranger, wilder things yet to be. Lulled into that sense of calm, ‘Without You’ hits all the harder, starting it all for real this time. It’s a celebration of being single, of freeing yourself of dead weight relationships and playing the harmonica like a skiffle demon, just ‘cause.
‘When The Tide Creeps In’, followed closely by ‘I’ll Keep You Warm’, songs full of pride and longing, bring us to the crux of what it is that Ellen and the Escapades have to offer that nobody else comes close to. So evocative of a time long past, a feeling long forgotten, these songs fill this tiny room a hundred times over with such gripping pent-up reverie, you can hardly believe where you’re hearing it. This is the kind of sound that should be spilling out of stadiums or echoing around a pine forest valley in the Pacific Northwest.
Excuse what might read like hyperbole, but this band are nothing short of an inspiration. Take another example – ‘All The Crooked Scenes’, a wild west shootout of a lead single, led into with a galloping ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’-type intro, before a drum flourish from James Warrender kicks off this epic of howling guitars and rolling thunder rhythm. It captures everything the record implied but couldn’t boast without the power of sheer presence this band possess as a live act. Finally, heartbreakingly, Ellen Smith sings those last lines like a voice fading into the wilderness, notes lingering with all the stillness of freshly fallen snow.
You wouldn’t think there was much that could follow such a performance. Not so with the Escapades. ‘This Ace I’ve Burned’ and ‘Preying On Your Mind’ slow down and speed up the pace respectively, played tight and true to all the crashes and caresses we’ve come to love about these live arrangements. ‘Yours To Keep’ shimmers and sways like we’ve known it for years, every inch the anthem to light up a dusky festival night, still and close as summer air. Even guitarist Jeff Schneider can’t resist a smile of admiration for Chris Quick’s tingling key section, giving us chills even in this close, stuffy room.
“This is where we pretend this is the last song,” says Ellen Smith as she tunes up for ‘Coming Back Home’. Cue a spontaneous “awwww” from all. “We’ll just keep playing, shall we?” A cheer answers that question, and the band throw themselves into another foot-stompin’, hand-clappin’, thigh-slappin’ number. ‘Stone Bird’ and ‘Can’t Make It So’ appear to wind down the night, until another encore cry goes up, this time from their Welsh touring companions Paper Aeroplanes: “Tears For Fears! Tears For Fears! Tears For Fears!” Schneider offers an explanation. “This…this is because I specifically said at the soundcheck I didn’t want to play that.”
With that cover suggestion shot down in flames, somebody suggests The Band’s ‘The Weight’. More chanting, then Ellen Smith makes another wry statement of intent: “We’ll play The Weight. Because it’s really fun to play. Not because you asked.”
It’d be fair to say everyone was waiting to sing this song; that joyful old refrain sees the gathered folkies raise the roof joining in. You might not even be aware you’re a folkie until you realise you know all the words to this song. It’s a fitting tribute to the recently departed Levon Helm, stirring and stomp-worthy all at once.
“This is the last one,” Ellen promises. Another round of “awwww”. Ellen shakes her head, barely suppressing a grin. “It doesn’t work a third time.” Perhaps it’s just as well; their closing performance of ‘Cast’ shakes the walls of the Castle with every last bit of energy they have left in them. You’re reminded of the tremendous sense of momentum in ‘Series of Dreams’, the standout track from Dylan’s Bootleg Series – but this song runs that bit faster, winds that tension so much tighter, wants that release so much more.
It ends, as all songs that aren’t experimental jazz must, and we walk out into the cool fresh evening air knowing lots of things. We know music like that doesn’t grow on trees; we know nights like that come along all too seldom; and we know that every other touring band has Ellen and the Escapades to follow now.