“We’re going to play a song now by a band we love and we hope you do, too. This is a song called ‘Feel’ and it’s by Bombay Bicycle Club.” Oh, Jessica. Just when it was going so well. Ne’er mind. It’s something of the measure of the Staveley-Taylor sisters that even a questionable cover choice comes off as a well-intentioned fumble rather than the disaster that a dalliance with the indie uber-fops really should be. With this year’s Justin Vernon-produced If I Was presenting a deeper, more characterful set of songs than their debut, and their cool take on Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ added to its recent re-packaging, The Staves really need rely on no-one’s songbook bar their own.
And so it – largely – proves as they return for their second local show of the year and the step up to the city’s best new venue adds a couple of thousand to their Manchester audience. But it’s not just the word-of-mouth slow burn of album number two that brings in the punters: rather, a live reputation built around a solid year of touring. Tonight they refer to their first night (of the tour) nerves more than once (Emily, after tech hiccups scupper ‘No Me, No You, No More’: “Oh it’s such a relief when something finally goes wrong! Get it out of the way!”) but you’d never guess, and there’s joy and wonder in how they flesh out the tender arrangements of their recorded work into something full-blooded and expansive.
Nineteen songs makes for a lengthy set but Emily, Milly and Jessica sequence with care. They begin acapella: the hall is hushed for new song ‘Hopeless’. Those voices, particularly for their mid-range close harmonies later in the set, really are extraordinary, but even from the off, still to properly warm up, they’re a wonder. ‘Blood I Bled’ (If I Was‘s title track of sorts) and ‘Steady’ introduce The Staves dynamite backing band, who provide colour and clout. Long-term purists might argue that the sisters are equally affecting when they go it alone, and there are high spots tonight where the band exit and The Staves’ voices and a couple of guitars conjure moments of beauty: ‘Don’t Let Me Down’; an aching ‘Sadness Don’t Own Me’. But tonight’s show really fires, and the excellent, locked-on (bar the usual pea-brained chatterers scattered throughout) crowd really gives it back, when it sparks and roars.
‘Black and White’ builds like a rumble in the distance – when the bass and drums enter, take cover. If their smartest trick is increasingly start-quiet-finish-loud, then ‘Damn It All’ is the epitome of that dark magic, its closing passage a soaring, pulsing head rush. Jessica’s ‘Teeth White’ is their single good time tune – the sweet spot after half a dozen songs about heartache and loss, and it spins and glows.
They’re funny, too, especially Emily, who, amidst various oddball ruminations throughout the course of the set, eventually lets fly at some hapless gobshite: “Oi! Shut up. I’m talking now. Oh, god – I’m such a bitch. Sorry. I’m sorry…a bit.” The Staves live show could so easily have been so much less than this. They might have opted for trad rabble-rousing in a sloppy bid to lift a set so reliant on voice and mood, but the path they choose is smarter by far, focusing as it does on soul and spirit. They trust the crowd to go/stick with them. (In return, Manchester – half your usual 6Music-loving boomers, half clued up youths – goes politely berserk.) Credit for avoiding cornball “This next song is called…”-intros and exhortations to clap along: the music stands without that kind of contrived support. Even though their performance is properly committed and generous to a fault – and it has to be to fill a hall this size – the eventual outcome is laced with a delicious irony: here are sisters, years after they learnt to sing together at home as children, (still) doing it for themselves.