SPIRO: Roots Unearthed, Lefel 3, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, February 17, 2017
Spiro are… well, a musical enigma. Even in their home city of Bristol, they remain pretty hidden, inconspicuous and mysterious; but when they come together, the sparks truly fly and the Spiro magic is ignited. Guitarist Jon Hunt, piano accordionist Jason Sparkes, mandolinist Alex Vann and violin player Jane Harbour mess delightfully and playfully with the audience’s minds; ancient tunes from the northern tradition are thrown into the quartet’s vortex think-tank with completely brain-boggling and utterly breathtaking arrangements, so reminiscent but so energisingly different, strikingly reminiscent of the hypnotic sound-waves of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Michael Nyman or Steve Reich. A Spiro gig is a stunning phenomenon that just has to be experienced – it really is a full-blown acoustic wall of sound.
The opening piece, ‘The City And The Stars’ from Kaleidophonica, Spiro’s follow-up to the much-praised Real World album Lightbox, laid the cards fairly and squarely on the table; Jane, Alex, Jon and Jason painted hypnotic, dreamlike musical riffs on an imaginary canvas, willing the audience to drift off and just float away, only to be startlingly reawakened by the crazy time signatures, just like Vaughan Williams overdosing on chemical products. There were snatches and traces of a Breton an dro in ‘Thought Fox’, a sound image which imperceptibly flitted away and which segued into ‘I Am The Blaze On Every Hill’, a tribute to Robert Graves.
Spiro added some welcoming plugs for their latest album, Repeater, their latest compilation which was released in October 2016 and which covered selections from their Real World CDs. ‘Shaft’ was inspired by the old Newcastle folk song ‘Bobby Shaftoe’, although the quartet had souped it up and seriously reshaped it so that the casual listener would not have been able to recognise it; however, those with the sharper ears could detect the familiar notes flying by. The four musicians were excellent to a very great degree – Jane’s mesmerising rocking and rolling violin, Jon’s elegant guitar building solid, chunky layers of sound, Jason’s velvet keyboards filling in colours and pastel shapes and Alex’s bright mandolin spurring on the busy instruments (Alex also plays with Three Cane Whale and, apart from his mandolin, performs with bowed psaltery, bouzouki, zither, banjo and dulcimer.) ‘Yellow Noise’, ‘The White Hart’ and ‘I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts’ were all in the Repeater portfolio, and the band came on stage again to play ‘Burning Bridge’ as a well-deserved encore. The sizeable but highly-discerning audience lapped it up in droves.
As we came out of St David’s Hall, we passed a friend who was highly ecstatic at Spiro’s performance: “Fantastic”, he said. “The crowd just floated away…” And it’s time to float away, too, to write another incisive review!