ICYMI REVIEW // Isaac Gracie & Billie Marten at YES, Manchester
Updated: Nov 22, 2018
Words by Scott Hill
Monday. Even the word evokes a sickening pang in the pit of your stomach comprised of pure trepidation. The sequel to yet another overindulgent weekend. As soon as you walk into work you know the management - in all their infinite wisdom - will be on your back about –
“That thing I asked you to do on Friday - you know - an hour before you finished…?”
Which of course – will be no sooner in materialising than the middle finger you’re fighting to keep under control. The Monotonous and mundane always starts with a Monday.
But not today. Today - after that painfully plastic - white wall clock strikes ‘home time’ you’re out the door and down to YES.
And performing in the Pink Room tonight - are Isaac Gracie with support from Billie Marten. A morose Monday turns to a Monday of mindfulness as these two artists invite the room to share in an emotion-driven - open-hearted escape.
A Waif like a figure takes to the stage. Her presence both coy and approachable. With a quick ‘hello’ and a warm - modest smile - Billie opens with her first song ‘Milk and Honey.’ Her melismatic vocal style coupled with the serene setting of a room bathed in a pink hue makes for a beautiful aesthetic. As the performance progressed the subtle percussion eased in and out - adding an almost tidal ebb and flow to the music. The occasional glance to cast off into the distance served as a reminder of the subject matter within Billie’s music. You almost could feel the longing in her voice as if she were navigating a maze of mournful memories.
It was difficult to abstain from getting caught up in the emotion as there was very little crowd interaction. Although at one point from amidst the somewhat sombre atmosphere came a voice -
“Hi. I’m Billie – and I brought muffins. They’re at the back – but there’s only 12.”
Previously mesmerised by her performance the crowd broke to enjoy in this glimmer of humour and an act that appeared to show a side of intrinsic selflessness. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a gig where one of the artists has made baked goods for the audience. After an acknowledgement of thanks, we were swiftly back onto the plight of the profound. Lush open chords juxtaposed to intricate picking patterns - transpired to the overall soundscape feeling eerie but familiar. Billie’s soaring falsetto simultaneously haunting and soothing. Delicate melodies supported by drummer Jason’s laid back and dampened percussion - provided as almost a joist for which the songs could always depend. Nothing was too much or over the top. A politeness in personality seemed to translate to a pleasantness in performance allowing room for the music to breathe. Unfortunately - as the performance continued – the audience’s attentiveness seemed to waver and wain. Murmurs built to chatters and at points, it was difficult to hear the introverted songstress. I feel that a more captivating and confident stage presence would have encouraged those talking to be more respectful of the performer – however, a common occurrence being the supporting artist on the bill.
Carrying fragility like a badge of honour – Billie ended her set with ‘Mice.’ An ambling folk waltz with all the simplicity of her songs before. Baring semblance to the music of Lucy Rose and a young Misty Miller – Billie’s songs seem to transport you to a place somewhere between that last summer holiday before starting high school - and the ‘end of the world’ break up with your first sweetheart. An emotional blend of childhood naivety in awe of the new world you are about to embark upon. Whilst maintaining an introspective reflation of past mistakes and love once lost.
As the applause and cheers trailed off – there came a short 15-minute pause while cables are coiled and gear is collected. Just enough time for my bladder to remind me that it needs alleviating before an hour with Isaac…
Whilst watching the stage hand’s frantic scurrying - I noticed that as many as three lead guitars were tested – tuned and checked. The reason for this remained unclear however I concluded it would become apparent in Gracie’s performance which was due to commence in a matter of minutes.
The choral voices of a non-secular ensemble lurched from the speakers – silence befell the room. Although this biblical entrance served to reaffirm Gracie’s singing roots as once a young chorister with Ealing Abbey Choir – I felt it had more connotations of the entrance theme to ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ - and was somewhat cheesy and unnecessary. Whether it was meant more as an ironic gesture to his humble beginnings - I’m not sure. But as Isaac and the band launched into ‘Running on Empty’ the crowd responded with a hearty cheer and broke out in song. It became clear that I was witnessing a talent of anthemic song-writer with a more than enthusiastic approach to performance.
The slightly gravely tones when he strained to higher melodies complemented his wavy brown ombré hair. A skinny fit red T-shirt leads down to spray on skinny jeans – finished with black Cuban heeled leather boots. Folk Cobain? Maybe. His poetic style of lyricism was beautifully highlighted by interspersed sections if the set - whereby the rest of the band would exit the stage leaving Gracie to engage in intimate renditions of his songs. In particular - ‘Show me Love’ left the audience in a stunned silence hanging on his every lyric. The cracking of his vocals conveyed a sense of vulnerability – trembling rawness but by no means shy of the pitch. Just a man with his guitar and a room that empathised with his words. A testimony to that even in a world of technology and programmable instruments – the humble songwriter still exists. After such a heartfelt and candid performance – the band returned to bring some emotional support and stability to the set.
With pretty much every new song – a guitar was changed over. Personally - I didn’t feel that the change of instrument added much tonal variety as such. Although witnessing Gracie as a performer and subscribing to the sincerity in his lyrics – I believe that it may be more than just a tonal change is the reasoning. Possibly which guitar could relate to a particular relationship – a particular mood – a particular time. It felt like I was witnessing ‘the many faces of’ Isaac Gracie rather than just his performance. An emotional rollercoaster that showed no sign of stopping or even slowing down. Sultry ballads of love intertwined with heavier rock headbangers – fitting in-between the realms of James Bay and Alex G (Sandy). Even an ode to Thom Yorke as ‘Creep’ made a brief appearance - woven into the tapestry of turmoil.
I feel that Isaac has a very enigmatic and endearing performance style. He was the first to admit that
“I can’t remember how it goes…”
“I definitely messed up a few times in that one.”
A sense of realness and letting your guard down to a room of people - is what pertains to a performance that people can relate to and ultimately feel included in. From Folk to Post Punk - Isaac’s gracious presence was well reciprocated by the audience – Despite at one point one man shouting to the back -
“Stop Fucking talking!”
To which Gracie replied
“I mean – he has a point…”
With a great many thanks - a night of passionate honesty - inspired by romanticised fantasy came to an end. And I couldn’t help but think ‘How can a man with such short sleeves wear his heart so wholly on the end of it?
In a world of constant undulation and unrest, this showcase of multifaceted musicians seemed like a safe-haven away from all routine and day to day drab. A reminder of how the human voice and emotion is such a powerful tool. Isaac Gracie and Billie Marten are the storytellers of old breathing fresh air into music - whilst upholding the values of tradition. Although the subjects of their words may be somewhat difficult to acknowledge – comfort can be found in this community of adversity. Electronic music may be the future in many ways - but lest we forget the reason we come to enjoy music as a unifying commodity. That emotion is still the foundation from which this culture stems - and should continue to be the epicentre of our musical evolution.