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Coven

The Greystones, Sheffield
Thursday 2 March 2017

You get a certain sense of place whenever you attend a gig at the Greystones, home to fine music for literally decades and wearing its Sheffieldness very definitely upon its sleeve. Male dominated black and white portraits proudly hang from the walls in the bar; Michael Palin, Paul Carrack, Richard Hawley and Cockers Jarvis and Joe respectively, spokespersons for entirely different generations, each keeping an eye on their beloved Steel City. The long queue had already reached the far end of the bar by the time I arrived at the venue, a queue made up predominantly of women of a wide demographic and rightly so. Three years ago, the three acts collectively known as Coven - O'Hooley and Tidow, Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie - gravitated towards one another specifically to celebrate International Women's Day, so it's perfectly natural to find women forming the majority of the audience tonight. In the queue, the hugs were liberally shared as friends gathered for the second of two consecutive sold-out shows, repeating the success of the previous year's two-night run at The Greystones.

Once everyone had taken their seats, the house lights dimmed and the six women took to the Backroom stage for the second time in just 24 hours and received some rapturous applause. By all accounts the previous night was relatively subdued, albeit with an attentive audience presumably keen to hear every single syllable of every single word in every single song, but tonight there was a sense of joy and excited anticipation as Grace Petrie picked up her guitar and took centre stage for the first of three solo songs. 

Part self-proclaimed feminist lesbian protest singer, part folksy Artful Dodger, with a clear desire to pick your brains rather than to 'pick a pocket or two', Grace sees things and that's for sure. What's more, she can't wait to tell you precisely what she sees. Pleading with the audience to 'stop the clocks and open up your ears', Emily Davison Blues provided the evening with the proverbial raised bar, which gave the remainder of the evening a lot to live up to. If Grace's self-depreciating wit is very much evident in Nobody Knows That I'm a Fraud, then her gentle humour is furthermore present and correct in the delightfully poetic Ivy, the touching story of the imminent arrival of her own niece, suspending her own birth until after Dolly Parton's celebrated Glastonbury set! It's a hoot of an idea.

From an excellent solo performance we next turn to the force that is O'Hooley and Tidow, whose anthemic Made in England, set out its agenda from the start; a bold conversation on the ease in which bigotry tends to hang around our society quite unwelcomed, certainly not welcomed by those at the Greystones tonight. The communal punching of the air on the final note could not have been more poignant. The "we love you" call from the audience confirmed that they were on Belinda and Heidi's side from the start. The duo continued with a couple of other songs from their current album SHADOWS, the gentle Blanket, which showcases Belinda and Heidi's unique vocal blend and The Pixie, a lovely tale about Daisy Dakin, one of our early female Morris dancers.
 
An engaging soloist, followed by a much revered duo, the only place to turn at this point in the show would be to the trio consisting of Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew, otherwise known as Lady Maisery who introduced some of their classy arrangements to the party, together with some nimble footwork courtesy of Hannah, opening their portion of the first set with Portland Town, followed by Diggers Song and finally Hazel's Order and Chaos, all of which were cheerfully welcomed by the audience. Closing the first set, the collective colluded on Bread and Roses, the first song of the night from Coven’s brand new EP UNHOLY CHOIR, a taste of what would follow in the second set.

The second set looked more closely at the songs from Coven's initial release, but not before Lady Maisery's reading of Richard Farina's The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, learned from the singing of Sandy Denny, which in turn introduced Rowan's highly effectual banjo/sitar, a now familiar part of the singer’s musical armoury. This together with Hannah's hand claps and Hazel's harp arpeggios, gave the song a trance-like ethereal feel. After the trio's reading of Sidney Carter's The Crow on the Cradle, the six women turned to the enduring influence of the one and only Kate Bush, with This Woman's Work, a vocal workout led by Hannah James and culminating in some of the most uplifting harmonies of the evening.

Other highlights of tonight's extraordinary performance included Grace's humdinger of an anthem If There's a Fire in Your Heart with the infectious refrain 'it only needs to be a candle' and Belinda and Heidi's Beryl, complete with Heidi's hilarious mime of Beryl on her bike with Rowan, one of the 'Bezzarettes' offering the occasion ringing of a cyclist's bell. Towards the end of the show, the Collective performed Coil and Spring, the startingly honest opening song on the EP, that tackles further bigotry in organised religion, originally heard on O'Hooley and Tidow's 2014 album THE HUM.

There was a lot of love at the Greystones tonight, a tangible force created by open minded individuals and a space free from the distractions of the almost unrecognisable world outside. If songs can heal then the Backroom tonight became a sanctuary for the battle-scarred. As the final notes of Coil and Spring faded and the six women took their bows, the audience lifted the roof with their appreciation. After some foot-stomping demands for more, the women returned for their deserved encore, choosing the late Maggie Roche's sensitive Quitting Time as a suitable closer, followed by an entirely acoustic Never Turning Back, with each of the six women standing shoulder to shoulder, heads aloft, facing their audience and rounding off not one, but two highly successful and thoroughly rewarding evenings at The Greystones.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky