The Leisure Society & Heritage Orchestra, Barbican, London (4/5)


A collaboration with a 30-piece orchestra: perhaps not the ideal occasion to debut live a B-side track, but The Leisure Society’s founders Nick Hemming and Christian Hardy have an agenda tonight.

Introducing ‘If God Did Give Me A Choice’, the former explains, “I wrote this in the depths of depression when I didn’t think I would ever make it in music… When we played this in rehearsal, me and Christian burst into tears.”

So vindication is in the air, especially for a nervy, whey-faced Hemming, who two years ago was working in a fabric warehouse after a succession of false-starts and failed line-ups. Since forming The Leisure Society, though, he has recorded a pair of acclaimed albums and received two Ivor Novello nominations. Playing catch-up, then, these late-starters have already in 2011 collaborated with Ray Davies and performed in an aquarium, so a set with serial genre-busters The Heritage Orchestra is par for the course.

Question is, what can classical musicians add to a group with a collectivist aesthetic - this evening they number 10 players - and already finely detailed arrangements. Especially on second album Into The Murky Water, released earlier this year, The Leisure Society deftly combine folk and Americana influences into their own engaging sound. Rather than one glib answer, the orchestra proffer individual solutions that mesh with the group with often surprising results. Hemming’s more upbeat numbers are transformed into sweeping symphonic pop, the larger ensemble’s creamy sound a fine contrast to his often sardonic lines, notably on ‘Save It For Someone Who Cares’.

At such times, the string sections can steamroller the band lined up in front of them, though on more plaintive tunes their conductor Jules Buckley gives the band room to breathe. Despite the scale, there are plenty of details to watch out for. On the second album’s title track, there is the call and response between violinist Michael Siddell’s scratchy tone and the strings behind him, while for ‘This Phantom Life’, the brass section provide sympathetic backing to Helen Whitaker’s delicate flute solo. 

Their only misstep is the jarring trad-jazz trumpets on ‘Just Like The Knife’. The orchestra even add their own showmanship to a group that admit to taking lessons from Laura Marling. At the end of The Leisure Society’s encore, ‘A Matter Of Time’, they return midway through the last number to provide a triumphant sturm und drang finale.