I got there just in time to see Honey Birch walk to the microphone looking confident and sounding strong and full-voiced: her songs are full of messages to teenage girls like her, delivered with power and melody. Her desire to make her feelings heard over-rode fear and struck a positive and honest chord to begin the evening, that wasn't lost for a second right the way through. Honey is a talent to watch (and listen to).
Shirley, the Raincoats manager, and Nina talked us through the reasons for the collaboration between Angel and the Raincoats, before the stage was filled with striped women holding instruments and exuding excitement and anticipation. Alternating between Raincoats songs and Angel Olsen songs, the first song was held together by the spine-tingling violin riff played by Anne Wood; the group swapped instruments throughout, sometimes presenting us with two basses, lots of combinations of guitars, percussion, and a baby synth played by Ana Da Silva that punctuated some of the songs with snarling electronic whines and beeps. There was an egalitarian feeling on stage that knocked the last gig I saw here (Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Mind) into a cocked hoop. Where he was a 'star' who commanded his equally big band to be silent so he could sit on the edge of the stage and swing his legs, this group of musicians were fully in communication with each other, singing along silently to each other's songs when not in command of a microphone (something that is always touching to see), making eye contact, smiling...
I hadn't been familiar with Angel's songs before and was charmed by the hint of Joe Meek in them; she is truly a modern artist, but there is something in her sound that echoes back to the aching reverbs of the 1960s that signalled that all was not well back in that allegedly thriving world.
A song by Gina, a song by Ana, a song by Angel, are You Lonely Too?: and there were bushels of unison singing, from the 'yeah, yeah, yeah's in No-One's Little Girl onwards. Unison singing is powerful, empowering and not always pretty. That's why football chants work so well, and I was impressed by the resistance of the group against harmonising (which they proved enough that they could do), and their embracing of the power of their ability to be bloody loud and bloody clear.
They checked each other out for cues and clues and looked like they were having a blast up there. The chat between songs was witty. 'Tell the orchestra to start', exclaimed Gina, just before one of the (rare) backing tracks kicked in. In spite of the crisp and well-rehearsed edge to the show, there were little hints of informality: the pair of spectacles next to the little synth on the table, for instance.
The song Love to Keep featured Angel and Gina duetting and had been developed into a beautiful flower in rehearsal. You couldn't disengage from this show, because you never knew what was going to happen next. Anne traversed the stage with the violin, visiting the drums, Ana, Angel, Gina, Heather; as the mobile member of the group she contributed to knitting them together visually and sonically too. If Angel is wise, she'll tap into Anne's skills herself at some time in the future.
Then 'Spin!' said Ana, and the giant disco ball spun, peppering the walls and ceiling with little motes of coloured light for her song Disco Ball. I felt like crying; all the emotion of this godforsaken year that has been bottled up for months. Oh humans; we blunder about, wounding other people and being wounded so badly! Seeing this line of women in their unusual configuration reminded me of human-ness, something that has been in such short supply this year. It was the lack of ego, the lack of narcissism and the obvious generosity in the performance and in the nature of the collaboration.
The show went on... the drummer is great and can take anything that is thrown at him. From the balcony I watched him listen and interact with the music, going with the flow when he needed to and boxing in the rhythms when that was what the song asked for.
Angel sang beautiful songs; High and Wild, was a highlight, and in Gina's song Bonkers, I even heard a little of my own contribution, 'They're barking mad, they're wild'. Well, they bloody well are. It was entrancing to hear the musical bridges that they had made between Angel's structured songs and the more experimental songs of The Raincoats. The work had been put in over three days of intensive rehearsals, and the sheer enjoyment of the challenges met and conquered by learning and developing each other's material was utterly infectious.
Gina encouraged everyone to expose their full stripes; the jackets and cardigans came off and Ana played the first chord and off they launched into Lola, such a London song and such a 'now' song, even though it was written way back then. Here was the unison loud-girl singing again; there was nothing pretty about it, but it was beautiful. 'Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls'. Yes they will, and girls will be girls and boys will be boys; we will all be slugs, snails, sugar and spice mixed up together. Off they marched in a parade of stripes, but the audience wasn't ready to say goodbye.
They roared and roared for more.
'Maybe we should do the whole thing again' said Ana, remarking that they could play for Rough Trade's 80th birthday (this was the 40th) but by then she would be over a hundred years old.
We had In Love, we had Fairytale in the Supermarket, and we said a reluctant goodbye to a one-off concert; the band held hands and did a theatre-bow, a final funny touch to a fabulous evening.
All the way through I could see from my spot on the balcony Shirley sitting in the shadows consumed with happiness and pride. What a pity the label weren't here to see this one-off show; it is a rare thing indeed to see a group of all-ages musicians gel with such enthusiasm, skill and sheer joy.
Oh yes- female ones, too.
And I am now an Angel Olsen fan.