Mad Dog Mcrea @The Half Moon 18/03/15

5 stars (out of 5)

1

TitleOk, life lessons for music lovers part two. First, don’t just turn up to watch the headline band; not all support bands have paid to get on a tour, some of them are actually there because the headliners like them or just because they’re good. That was certainly the case with Sound of the Sirens (that’s the temptresses who play enchanting music, not the minor third you hear before an emergency vehicle knocks you down) at The Half Moon. Second, if you’re watching bands at smaller, independent venues, buy something at the merchandising stall. The band’s probably playing for peanuts (if they’re being paid at all) and buying their CDs or memorabilia means that they actually get some kind of income and, let’s face it, they probably need it a lot more than you do.

So, rant over, what were the bands like? Brilliant, thanks, I’m done. What, more specific? Ok, bloody brilliant.

No seriously, Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood (Sound of the Sirens) are from Exeter and they claiming they’re stalking Mad Dog Mcrea on tour. Abbe plays guitar and mandolin, Hannah plays guitar, both sing beautifully and it’s all underpinned by kick drum and stomp box percussion. They shift the mood from happy to sad and back again through the set and they sound equally at ease with the slow, reflective songs and the barnstorming foot-tappers. What they also have is a gently charismatic stage presence; there’s a lot of self-deprecation but it doesn’t hide the fact that they’re very, very good. The playing is spot on and two voices complement each other perfectly whether they’re singing harmony or counterpoint. There you go, I’m happy and the headliners aren’t even tuning up yet.

I’ve heard some really good things about Mad Dog Mcrea, I love “Almost Home”, and I’ve been looking forward to this gig, but how do you follow a support band after they’ve put in a storming shift like Sound of the Sirens have? Well, you could have most of the band starting up on stage while the singer makes an entrance through the audience banging a bloody great drum. That would do it; we’re off and running, but how do you describe what happens when Mad Dog Mcrea hit the loud pedal?

Well, at the risk of repeating my colleague Klare, I think a teamsheet might help. The team is Michael Mathieson (guitar and vocals), Dan Crimp (whistles, flute and vocals), Jimi Galvin (bass), Dave Podmore (banjo, bouzouki and vocals), Pete Chart (drums and percussion) and Nicki Powell (fiddle). The instruments hint at a folky, Celtic feel and that’s part of it but there are an awful lot of other elements in there as well. You can hear jazz, gypsy and eastern European, klezmer, bluegrass, country and bit of straightforward rock and pop all mixed together and marinated in bootleg hooch until its effects are wildly unpredictable. Now that sounds like my kind of night.

It’s no surprise that there isn’t a setlist; the band likes to respond to requests and shift direction if that’s what the audience needs so what we get is a selection of songs from “Almost Home” (the tempo-shifting “Heart of Stone”, the banjo-led “You Can’t Find Me”, the infuriatingly catchy “Cher” with its clever lyrical references, “Almost Home” , “The Sound” featuring Suzie Mac on backing vocals, and the Rory Gallagher cover – not that Rory Gallagher – “Mad Dog Coll”) and a few old favourites like “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”, “Climb a Hill”, “Little Black Fly”, “Am I Drinking Enough?”, the Richard Thompson cover “Bee’s Wing” and “Pikeys Killed my Goldfish”.

But even that isn’t eclectic enough because, on top of all the musical references that are dropped in, there’s a cover of “The Devil Came Down to Georgia” showcasing Nicki’s fiddle playing (with a sneaky reference to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and a medley starting with “The Bare Necessities”. After ninety minutes of that, the band and the audience are drained and you can see why the band have built up such a fanatical following; the audience don’t know what’s coming next but they know that the band will give everything until the show’s over (and way beyond if we didn’t have music curfews), night after night.

This was easily the best headliner and support I’ve seen in ages. Just don’t ask me how I felt when the alarm went off at 5:45 this morning.

“Almost Home” is out now on God Dam Records Ltd (GDR004). CDs and downloads available from Amazon and downloads from iTunes.

“Sound of the Sirens” CDs and downloads available here.