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Jess Morgan and Stillhouse By Candlelight

The Old Fire Station, York
Saturday 10 September 2016

Just as the hustle-bustle of a regular York Saturday night got underway, the interior space of the old disused Victorian Chapel on the corner of Clifford Street and Peckitt Street, which was converted into the city's fire station in the 1930s, was once again illuminated by several dozen candles for the latest in a series of art related events under the banner 'By Candlelight'. The building which now stands empty, provided an enchanting space for both art and music, the art provided by Blank Canvas and the arts charity Skippco, a local organisation that makes use of vacant commercial properties as short term spaces for creative and educational projects in both York and Leeds, and the music provided by the Norwich-born singer-songwriter Jess Morgan, the new progressive acoustic trio Stillhouse and the in-house duo Gobbledigook, who were effectively tonight's hosts.

Northern Sky first discovered Jess Morgan almost exactly eight years ago when she played a support spot for Rod Picott and Amanda Shires in the Basement Bar beneath York's City Screen Cinema back in October 2008. Tonight's appearance by the singer in York was almost like a homecoming in that Jess spent a lot of time in the city during her University years. Since then, Jess has gone on to make a handful of quality albums, the latest being the soon to be released EDISON GLORIETTE, which will be in shops by October. Tonight, Jess performed some of the songs from the new record, flanked by Bradley Blackwell on double bass and Jay Chakravorty on keyboards and electric guitar.

As the audience relaxed whilst reclining on sofas in the candlelight, Jess performed for the second time with this particular line-up, with an hour of self-penned songs including from the new album The Longest Arm, Don't Meet Your Heroes, A Hundred Years Old and In Brooklyn as well as one of two from Jess's back catalogue including Annie of Greyfriars and Modern World. As Phil Grainger pointed out in his introduction, Jess holds the distinction of being the only artist to have played twice in the By Candlelight series, a series that has been running since 2015 in several locations around the area.

The newly formed progressive acoustic trio Stillhouse, which is made up of singer-songwriter Jonny Sellers, mandolin player Polly Bolton and double bassist Matt Mefford, created a full and tight sound tonight, all of which appeared to be hand made for these particular surroundings. As the candles flickered around their feet, reflecting the crepuscular activities of the twilight hour, the trio showcased the songs that will soon be causing a stir on the acoustic music scene once their name gets out and about. Starting with Heart in a Cage, a surprising opener originally by The Strokes, the trio went on to reveal some of Jonny's well-constructed self-penned songs, including Razor's Edge, Love is the Weight, Numb and Holly

The trio's twin strong points were revealed almost immediately tonight as we discovered that not only is the band capable of writing and arranging top drawer songs, they have the additional instrumental chops to go with it. Matt Flinner's complex Raji's Romp for example, appeared to be a walk in the park for Polly Bolton, whose credentials as a fine mandolin player have never been more apparent. This was further demonstrated during the trio's reading of Chris Thile's I'm Yours if You Want Me together with the finisher, the nineteenth century fiddle tune Elzick's Farewell, all of which pointed to the fact that this particular trio will soon be swapping the candlelight for the main stage spotlights by next year's festival season.

Despite Jonny's disappointment when he realised that the light of the moon outside the old fire station doors, which had accompanied the trio's set, was in fact a dull York street light over the road, my guess is that the three musicians would have been pleased with tonight's set. I have a strong feeling that audience certainly was. 

Opening the event tonight was our host duo Gobbledigook, fronted by Phil Grainger, whose naturally soulful voice required no PA at all, as he performed Black Sabbath's surprisingly mellow Changes and the powerful Etta James classic I'd Rather Go Blind, accompanied by musical partner Simon Bolley on electric guitar. By the end of Jess Morgan's set, Phil summed up the evening with a booming holler, the volume of which only his voice could reach, followed by a handful of inspirational words, "art, photographs, money, thanks, peace, love, unity, GOODNIGHT!" I couldn't have put it better myself.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky