Bill Ryder Jones – If – Live at Manchester Cathedral
9th October 2014
I am a fussy sod. I only got to a handful of gigs these days and as a result I pick and choose them with care. When I discovered that Bill Ryder Jones was due to premiere his debut full player, If, in Manchester as part of the Literary Festival I knew I had to be there. When it was first released in 2011, If was a bit of a curveball since it was about as far removed from his previous incarnation as could be imagined. With limited vocals, Bill Ryder Jones chose to launch his solo career with an orchestral/classical suite, and with it, blew these ears away.
A Bad Wind Blows in my Heart followed in his debut’s wake and being more conventional (but still feathered in beauty), it seemed like If would become a forgotten debut. Thankfully not, because with the co-operation of the Manchester Literary Festival and Manchester Cathedral, we had the privilege of hearing the whole piece in its entirety from start to finish, and what better venue for a resurrection?
I have been to the odd classical ‘gig’ before, but I am still a little nervous with regard to the correct etiquette. Having already been berated by she who must be obeyed with a parting “You’re not going out like that are you, you scruffy get”, I wondered exactly what kind of audience might turn up, and whether it would be a chat-fest that often ruins more intimate gigs. As the musicians tumbled onto the stage and began their version of a kick around to get warmed up, people were darting to and fro to make sure they were seated for the opening. After some kindly introductory remarks from the Festival organiser and the Pardre of the Parish, Bill came to the stage to introduce his work. Unassuming, humble and a little shy, he simply uttered his concurrence with those that had spoken before, and then gave us a brief outline of the narrative of the book that fired his inspiration for the piece, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, because this was of course a literary as well as a musical event. Write on!
John Simm’s familiar voice began proceedings with presumably the opening segment of the book (I bought one of the copies being helpfully sold in the foyer). Then the first peals of If rang out. It was astonishing; the sound engineer and the spiritual air of the Cathedral, meddled with the sounds issuing forth from the Manchester Camerata Orchestra to cast spells. The sound was sumptuous and seemingly to these ears, note perfect in recreating the majesty of the record. The Reader would not be out of place in a movie like Schindler’s List such is its fragile sadness, and I found movie scenes and personal life stories flitting through my mind throughout the evening, such is If’s meditative qualities.
Leaving (The Star of Sweden) hears vocals for the first time and the acoustics in the Cathedral lent themselves to Ryder’s whispered delivery. The odd crack in his voice only emphasised the hurt described in the lyrics.
Ryder Jones has described By the Church of Apollonia as having an Eastern European flavour, and the stunning female vocals act as a witness to the sad history of that part of the world. Live it is a passionate piece, oozing feeling and the sense that something has been lost. It is a breath-taking segment, like Delibes’ Lakme, tranquilised. Le Grande Disorde is Bill and his guitar. Finger picking his way through a delicate tune accompanied by intermittent strings and the closest thing to a song in the tradition we are accustomed to, it makes for a sad yet pleasing and thoughtful interlude before the centrepiece of If kicks in. Enlace is a slow building monster that rises on a throbbing drumbeat before thrashing into a euphoric rush, driven on by heart flooding strings that aim for the heights. It is a monumental piece of music that thrills the bones and live it is epic in scope. The audience was reverential throughout but you sensed an excitement as Enlace reached its denouement. Even If’s more sombre songs have the capacity to become cavernous and soaring in Manchester Cathedral’s warm environs and Intersect sounded quite magnificent tonight. Meanwhile The Flowers No.3 (Lotus) saw inquisitive strings giving way to a heart-breaking solo. A cello player who was otherwise unemployed during this piece, was totally lost, eyes closed and swaying in its search for answers that only maybe Bill Ryder Jones knows.
Give Me A Name saw Ryder Jones proffer an assured vocal as the quiet-loud-quiet Camerata gave suitable backing. As the final note rang out, the composer quietly offered “This is gonna be the last one, thanks for coming. I hope you enjoyed yourselves”. Aptly titled, Some Absolute End (The End) brought the evening to a close with a plaintive piano and Ryder-Jones magnificent slide guitar duelling with each other. As with much of If, it brings to my mind the feeling of waves; the natural power of waves is reflected in the music, as is the grief that comes in waves, alongside a wave goodbye. The lilting crescendo falls and disappears into the starry Manchester night, as does Ryder Jones with a simple, what else, wave.
Tonight felt special. It was special. If there is a second coming, you just have to be there.