Sunday, 28 September 2008

Grace @ The White Star, Stoke. September 26th.

Review by Danny Hill

Photos by Christopher Shenton

Picture the scene: a pub, noisy, almost chaotic with drunken laughter and conversation, cigarette smoke hanging from the sides of an oval-shaped room, punters impatiently scrambling for the bartender’s attention; and a young lad, probably twelve or thirteen, bored-looking, stuffing crisps and coke into his pudgy face, most probably to stifle the irritation at having been unwillingly dragged along to his parents‘ favourite night-time haunt to see their new favourite band. The pudgy kid’s parents have desperately been trying to project (impose?) excitement into him, telling him this band was a definite “one to see”.

Then, after seemingly ages to the kid’s perspective, the lights dim and the stage lights up in a warped strobe effect, and the band take their positions. The fracas has slowed to an almost immediate halt, as if by magic. Most of the crowd know what to expect, the latter part - dragged along by friends or family or both - don’t, have only the excitable impression indented on their senses by those that have seen the band before. Expectation is almost tangible in the smoke-filled pub. The band begin: rhythmically, beautifully, the captivating sound of flutes melding perfectly with a deftly-picked electric guitar, the haunting, relentless synth melodies accentuated with engaging, urgent vocals. Soon into the gig, a man removes his shirt and beats his bare chest with a rubber chicken, and one is playing dustbin lids. The pudgy kid isn’t bored anymore. This isn’t just about music, it’s entertainment. And entertainment on this level is hard to find. For those in the know, they know - simply because anyone who has ever seen this band are rarely likely to forget.

For those who don’t, the pub in question was once known as The Wheatsheaf, situated in the centre of Stoke town, closed down after much effort to rescue it from live music fans in the late-nineties. The year is probably 1990/1991, and the pudgy kid is myself, attending my first ever live-music gig, sold forever. The band call themselves Grace, and after hearing and seeing them live it’s not hard to understand why.

And tonight, sixteen years on and still as pudgy, I pay Grace another visit. This time at The White Star in Stoke, a pub that offers live music from a long, narrow room on its second floor, with a small bar placed suitably at one end and the band wedged tightly together at the far end. And I stress that they are wedged in, as Grace have seven members to their team, playing eight instruments. Having formed in the 1978 Grace have undergone some changes to their line-up since their formation, but of the original act remains Mac Austin on vocals, Harry Davies on saxophone and flute, Dave Rushton on bass and Dave Edge on acoustic guitar. The latest additions are Dave Markham on keyboard, Adam Rushton on lead-guitar and Tony Hall on drums. They start their set with ‘A Voice From Above’, a heavy drum and bass loop, before the brilliant fusion of sax playing and lead guitar begins; and the vocals are just as engaging in their simplicity.’Fire of London’ is next, the staccato vocals in the middle-8 reminiscent of early Genesis, leading towards a mesmerising keyboard solo. ‘Overdose’ and ‘Every Day’ come along next, with their immediate hooks and rockier, sing-along choruses, completely infectious, and proving, with distinction, that not one Grace song - as good as they are - sounds even remotely similar to the last…

The evocative flute playing in ‘Hanging Rock’ calls Jethro Tull to mind, the atmospheric chorus my favourite of the evening so far. With its Celtic style and haunting vocal, the Hanging Rock, a lengthy ballad, epitomises Grace: their musicianship, multiplicity and eclectic styles. What’s more, the songs of Grace are so systematically engaging, they are impossible not to like. As testament to this, the crowd - young and old - are bobbing their heads appreciatively, some singing back every word in receptive harmony. Grace’s songs throughout the evening dip and swell in their relentless charging melodies, constantly changing course, and the band later offer slices of their more acoustic, folkier offerings. It’s always refreshing (albeit frustrating) to write about a band that have such a unique sound that defies familiarity. One simply can’t pin Grace down into a single genre.

Grace were once signed to MCA Records and have headlined various festivals around Europe. Once tipped for mainstream success, it was the rise of punk during the late-70s that sounded the death-knell for Grace as a mainstream-recording entity. One of the main reasons for their local success, however - other than their musicianship and array of great songs, was their unusual act. People had not seen two performers wrestling for the front man position before, as singer Mac and sax-player Harry do. As a child I found their positioning confusing yet slightly distinctive, like two members of a relay team, handing the baton over to the other to take prominence. In the tight space of The White Star, however, this particular act didn’t resurface with the wider scope a larger stage has to offer. And the rubber chicken and dustbin lids gimmick may be out, but Grace introduce new mascots to their performance with a hilarious train-spotter character dancing along in song ‘Anorak of Fire’, and a masked burglar in the aptly titled ‘Burglars’.

In the second set, Grace capture more refrains from their back catalogue: ‘Success’, ‘The Piper’ and ‘Rain Dance’ - all taken from their synthesiser-inspired album Poet, Piper and the Fool - still sound as brilliant today as they’ve ever done, perhaps more so, as do ‘Architects of War’ and ‘Sing Something Simple’.

Looking relaxed and evidently still performing after all these years, it was yet again a pleasure to witness one of Stoke’s finest bands in performance; and as with any Grace gig you’re guaranteed an evening of good company, good cheer and excellent music.

Visit Grace website.

Footnote received from former bassist Gary Hurlstone:

The original line up for Grace was in fact myself [bass] Mac Austin [vocals] Marshall Berrisford [Guitar] Dave Edge [Guitar] Harry Davies [flute/sax] Maz [Drums] Pre-dating Grace by some 5 or 6 years was Jim Crow [also included Michael Noddy Ellis on synthesisers] the forerunner of the current band.

In many respects the direction, both thematically and musically, was set by the original line up, particularly through the work of Marshall Berrrisford. Theatricallity the band started to develop when still performing as Jim Crow [an article appeared in the Sentinel written by then drummer Avron White around '77 ] but continued to blossom during the band's early residency at Bridge Street Arts Centre, [largely as a result of Harry and Mac]. I left in 1979 after a performance for the Year of the Child and wrote several songs which subsequently appeared on their next album.

Prog rock was effectively dead by 1979 and Grace's quirky oddball eccentricity seemed a little out of place in the nihilistic culture of punk. Despite this they have somehow managed to continue, a testimony to their musical tenacity and the warmth and support they receive from their local audience, many of whom have grown up with their sound.

Maz, a great powerhouse of a drummer and a great guy as well, sadly died recently. I now play in China and have a new album Dignity, ready to release- I play the Xiamen Music Beach Festival on Thursday for details. As for Michael and Marshall - they appear to have gone off the radar.

Gary Hurlstone

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