Boat To Row

In a rather unassuming terraced house in Kings Heath, something very special is happening.  Instead of the usual TV in the corner polluting the room with fake talent contests, there is a real singer and a real guitar player: and I don’t mean they are on the tele, no, they are right there in the room… this is infinitely more exciting than anything HD or HD ready can give you.  And there’s more, instead of a settee with two people sitting allowing waves of televised drivel to wash over them, there is a crowd of passionate spectators crammed into the four square metres of floorspace… this is a gig, this is a living room, this is the Coffee and Cake Club

gemma quarterman

Cassie Smyth is the hostess of this extraordinary night, and despite my initial misgivings at reviewing a gig in someone’s home, I was immediately struck by the wonderful welcoming atmosphere of the house, and when the music began, warmed to the idea completely. Cassie really has, either by accident or design, managed to construct an unnatural event in this setting, yet make it feel totally natural.

I have to admit that the venue takes some getting used to, both for artist and audience, after all when the evening’s first singer takes to the stage (that being the gap between the wall and the first sitting audience member), she has to step through and over people to get there. And when Gemma Quarterman finds her small space she is greeted by 30 pairs of eyes, all waiting; and she can see every one of them very clearly.. there is no hiding place here.

She admits straight away that this is more nerve wrenching than any normal gig and I have to agree, I would not want to exchange places. However, any nerves she has quickly subside and she fills the room with a set of stunning songs, sang with great tenderness and passion. Her two accompanists (Matt Townshend and Steven Blackmore, from The Great Plain) adding guitar, vocals and percussion, and guitar respectively. The three musicians manage to create a wonderful blend of tones with overlapping guitar parts, fantastic vocal melodies (especially on “Hush”) and also xylophone (on a beautiful track called, I think “you know, the new one”!)

gemma quarterman

Floating above this solid foundation is Gemma’s vocal, a fine mix of folk-pop but coloured at times with a semi-operatic tone, which really does help to make it stand out from what is after all a saturated market: I mean how many more female singer-songwriters is there room for? The crowd clearly thinks that she is ready to knock off a few of the already established successful female artists to make room, and the audience erupts when she sings another new song, possibly to be called something like “I’ll Bust the Bones in Your Face”, which is a welcome change of pace and attitude and you can picture the once sensitive singer-songwriter metamorphosing into an angry young woman. A strong, dangerous female role model would certainly make a mark in a genre which all too often encourages the shy and retiring.

I would certainly like to see Gemma Quarterman play again, both with a more substantial band behind her and also a crowd of strangers. One thing she did have on her side tonight was a roomful of people who knew her and it was clear that they knew the background to her lyrics and had already warmed to her style. It would be interesting to see her blossom before a crowd of the uninitiated and based on her performance here, she could win anyone over.

gemma quarterman

After a short break of more coffee and more cake, Boat To Row weave through the crowd and take up position in front of the mantelpiece. They are made up of three very young men – Michael King, of the band Youves (previously Mirror! Mirror!), accompanied by Paul Wecther on percussion and Craig Wainwright on guitar, bass and ukulele.  Michael has an air of Scott Walker and early Bowie (circa 1968, around the time of “Love You Til Tuesday”), which is no bad thing in my book.  And when Boat To Row begin their set my first impressions are pretty close.  Michael’s knack of writing great lyrics, coupled with a good old fashioned sense of real heart-lifting melodies is a breath of fresh air in a scene where the majority of singer-songwriters opt for the easy option of moaning about lost love.  Here we have a mixture of upbeat and quirky, and heart-melting and tender; totally original, but with a small nod towards Belle and Sebastion.

Stand out songs are the bouncy “Autumn Glow”, which features a lovely descending bass line in the chorus; also “Forgetful Madame”, which has an early Simon and Garfunkel arrangement and a beautiful lyric in the chorus:  “You’ll wonder why you walked away from a man who loved you truly”, which is repeated until Michael’s voice breaks with emotion.  There is also a song, but I missed the title, which is a story of traveling on the M42 and it is fabulous, utterly heart-warming.

Boat To Row

There are moments when the room is in sync and it is partially due to the quality of the performance and also the actual surroundings themselves. At the Coffee and Cake Club, you have things not normally associated with gigs:  you can hear everything, the singer and guitar is less than six feet away, the vibrating air from vocal chord or guitar string is sensed immediately.  There is something truly inspiring about hearing a voice come from a mouth and not a stack of speakers.  Moreover, you feel a part of the performance, not distanced standing in the dark, and this is felt most powerfully during an off the cuff rendition of Springsteen’s “Dancing In the Dark”.  Michael seems to glow when all around him joins in with the chorus; this was real audience/artist bonding… it is priceless.
And it is Boat To Row’s final song, which Michael sings alone without his two compadres, that leaves a lasting impression.  He bravely ends on a ballad after getting everyone fired up with the Bruce anthem, but now we are hanging on his every word and even though his voice is quieter than before, we lean in to listen.  The intimacy of the surrounding lends itself perfectly for this kind of performance and although annoyingly I am humming “Dancing in the Dark” on the way home, when I listen again to the Boat To Row Myspace site, the self-penned songs really shine.  Whether or not Michael remains as both Youves and Boat To Row, or settles for one path, it is difficult to say, as both have their strengths, but whatever he does, the quality of his musicianship is unquestionable.  A real star in the making.

The Coffee and Cake Club is a monthly gig, check out their site for more information. I guarantee you will be welcomed with open arms and treated to some of the brightest talents that the Midlands has to offer.


Review & Photos – Al Neilson

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