Many of today's most lauded acoustic acts create beguiling sounds on record but are handicapped live by uncertain stage presence. For these three old hands, the opposite was the case.
The triumphant title of Clayhill's forthcoming album, Mine at Last, belies its grudging, introspective nature, though live you could see why the upright-bass-player Ali Friend and the guitarist Ted Barnes plumped for the singer Gavin Clark. While the repartee of Friend and Barnes lit up the tiny venue, they exuded the intensity of flat pale ale. Clark, meanwhile, glowered at them from a corner, his voice emerging with all the effort of cigar smoke.
It was an odd chemistry founded in their respective bases of London, Kent and Stoke. Clark had previously led Sunhouse, the group that had written music for Shane Meadows' early black comedies. Friend was a member of the jazzy electronic artists Red Snapper and met the singer-songwriter Barnes when they worked on Beth Orton's debut album, Trailer Park. Those two also worked on the soundtrack to Meadows' Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, only later realising that Clark was an old friend of the director.
At their best, Clayhill sounded like John Martyn gone funk. As Friend slapped his bass with elastic ease and Barnes forcefully picked out a skeletal melody, the way was set for Gavin's gravelled white soul voice on the single "Halfway Across". Even better was the bouncy bar-room serenade "Buy Me a Suit" and the groovy Van Morrison feel of "Suffer Not".
With two backing musicians adding drums, harmonium and keyboard, they provided bluesy or pastoral sounds that went beyond the vocalist's limited range. But Clayhill's slower numbers, such as "Mari Sol", although undoubtedly heartfelt, saw tune often sacrificed in favour of mood.
The rich textures of this album may improve on its earthy predecessor, Small Circle, though nothing matched the sheer joy of the Celtic-rock fusion "Lonely Soul" or the rousing, unadorned anthem "Grasscutter". With a strange mixture of funk, soul and acoustic lyricism, this odd threesome have found a new lease of life.