The choice of Toolmaker’s Brewery as a venue for Melrose Quartet’s pre-album launch party may have seemed like an odd one at first, but the welcome was certainly warm as the doors were thrown open for one of the first concerts at this relatively new performance space; it is always good to see new venues being supported and used. After mingling around their hometown crowd to welcome friends and supporters, Jess and Richard Arrowsmith, Nancy Kerr, and James Fagan took to the stage with an acapella version of “Mariah’s Gone”, the opening track from the new album. It is a fairly safe choice of opener for an acoustic gig, and one clearly recognisable to an audience used to hearing the band members sing in various pubs around Sheffield; indeed the whole room – which must have been nearing capacity – was singing along by the second chorus.
It’s not all acapella though; as soon as the harmonies have died down the instruments (an assorted variety in Fagan’s case) make an appearance. Unfortunately, because the band had opted to go completely acoustic, some of the verses to “Hand Me Down” were lost a bit at the back of the room. The choruses rang loud and clear though, as did the humorous banter between songs. A few slip ups were noticeable in the early part of the set, but to their credit the band carried on unphased with some intriguing polyphonic singing in “Ware Out Mother” that the audience were clearly receptive to, just as they were to the slow tune “Rosslyn Castle” – another one that is heard frequently in Sheffield pubs as well as at national festivals. It was also great to hear one particular version of “Seeds of Love” again, as a throwback to Kerr’s time in The Full English project.
Midway through the first half, the music really starts to get going with an excellent performance of Jess Arrowsmith’s “Anthem of a Working Mum”, which has all the makings of a modern folk rock anthem especially with the relentless strumming of James Fagan on guitar. It felt like a shame to be seated right in the middle of the crowd, and not standing at the back with room to dance! The title track of the new album, “Dominion of the Sword” finished up the first half excellently, as a suitably noisy closer with some appreciated political references thrown in the edited lyrics. Naturally several attempts to plug the new CD accompanied, though I am starting to wonder how many times folk audiences will hear the “special offer: buy one, get one” joke before it starts to feel old. Still, the band were clearly in their element as they defied audience expectations by throwing in an extra outro after the audience started applauding, and we were left nicely warmed up by the time of the interval.
The second half saw Melrose Quartet temporarily leave the new album aside and delve into a range of other songs and tunes, some familiar and other not so much. I moved towards the back in the interval, and unfortunately found parts of the speech between songs drowned out by the size of the hall, but the music was still audible. The same pattern arose of alternating between acapella songs, accompanied songs, and tune sets, which seemed to work well. This was perhaps helped by the fact that the band members, and their material, are all well known locally; the audience know most of the words from hearing them sung in the pub! The popularity of Melrose Quartet was also demonstrated not just by how full the venue became, but also by the fact that there were still a few latecomers arriving midway through the second half!
They finished on a local song, which was a nice touch, before the very singable encore of “Bright Morning Star Arising”, and an invite by the band to stick around for a drink and some more music until the venue closing time. Of course, it’s clearly a good Sheffield folk concert when the end of the show isn’t the end of the gig! Overall, Melrose Quartet did pretty much what I expected; though that is by no means a bad thing. They fulfill exactly what they set out to do, and manage to deliver a performance that is simultaneously fun, informative, interesting, and sometimes downright beautiful. Even if the vocals were drowned out at times, they still put on a highly enjoyable show that anyone with the most remote interest in folk music is sure to enjoy.