Review: Lael Neale live at Gullivers, Manchester

Press photo of Lael Neale by Alexandra Cabral

Lael Neale by Alexandra Cabral

Lael Neale played Manchester on May 15th.

As the ornate chandeliers emit a modest glow from the ceiling of this quirky, 110-capacity gig venue that has long supported grassroots artists and performers from its unassuming Oldham Street base in Manchester, it feels like the perfect setting for Lael Neale’s unique brand of eerie-folk.

Hailing from a remote farmhouse in Virginia, Neale grew up amongst the cattle and poultry with a soundtrack comprising The Beatles, Radiohead and The Cure. Such British rock luminaries are evident in a sound combining lyricism depicting a Shakespearean-style analysis of the more fragile side to the human condition.

Themes of death, loneliness, prayer, uncertainty and a fundamental desire for love are extolled on her latest and second album under the iconic Sub Pop banner, Star Eaters Delight, which is the focus of this stop on her European tour alongside long-time collaborator and instrumentalist, Guy Blakeslee.

The evening begins with Every Star Shivers In The Dark, a five-minute-plus ode to obtaining self-worth and forging a path through the daily drudgery of small-town life, with droning synth and Neale’s understated, honeyed vocals expertly matching the sentiment.

For the majority of the 50-minute set, Lael Neale clings to the comfort of her much-loved Omnichord, a retro 80s instrument capable of re-creating sounds typically requiring a larger band, including resonant auto-harp layers, drumbeats and organ notes set to high-sustain.

The resultant effect is what sets Neale and Blakeslee from appearing as just another to add to the list of folk bands and singer songwriters, with a swirl of hypnotic arrangements lulling the ever-perceptive Manchester audience into a transfixed state during songs – and ardent applause in between.

Faster Than the Medicine perfectly encapsulates the aforementioned variety, featuring a thrilling, escalating bass note run that quivers in Joy Division/New Order fashion. Neale’s vocal dexterity, in shifting from a low-fi pitch to a captivating falsetto reminiscent of Angel Olsen’s dramatic balladry, chimes well with earnest lyrics such as, ‘love is just a one shot try’.

Swapping Omnichord for acoustic guitar for a more direct take on the folk genre from previous album Acquainted With Night, Blue Vein is viewed as Lael Neale’s breakout track – currently standing at near 800,000 plays on Spotify.

The reason becomes clear due to its strident and relatable rumination on familial mortality and coming of age as Neale cries, ‘born to the song, born just to grow wings and to take off, I’m gonna fly’, it may be a stereotype, but you can almost envisage early demos of the track being played out to the resident Virginia wildlife, such is its earthly assessment of all that life entails.

The beauty in the unpredictability of live music bares itself thereafter, with Neale launching into a fabulous solo rendition of Burt Bacharach’s Don’t Make Me Over. Originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in August 1962, it’s clear that Neale has a firm grasp on the power of the straightforward, antiquated love song in a world now fraught with overwhelming complexity.

Closing the set is How Far Is It To The Grave, with electro-harpsichord back in action as Neale introduces the song by proclaiming: ‘I’m quite a serious person, so this song reminds me not to be. The thing about life is that it’s over very quickly’, before the poignant outro refrain of, ‘It’s only a life, dear friend, dear friend’, echoes through the room.

Lael Neale remarked that the last time she visited the venue there was a crowd around half the size of tonight’s packed-out space – she may well have outgrown it when she returns to these shores.

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