Review Summary: The best live album you'll hear all year... and it's free!
On 15 December 2012, The Twilight Sad stepped onstage at Glasgow's Barrowlands Ballroom and fulfilled childhood dreams; unleashing an avalanche of noise upon a devout, completely sold out hometown crowd. Frayed, rundown and derelict, the legendary hall and its unparalleled atmosphere are revered worldwide and amount to something of a Mecca for Scottish artists - and having frequented since their early teens, this must have felt not so much like a big gig as confirmation they'd "made it" for the humble, school-formed Kilysth trio. With a new album in the works and recent shows revisiting the early reaches of their career, it's clear the group have reached something of a crossroads, but rather than spark a downward slope that crowning moment has spawned fresh opportunities - notably an invitation to team-up with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for a one-off performance last October.
Housed in the grand, historic setting of Paisley Abbey, this was a show with similar significance to their date at the Barras, but whose essence could scarcely have been further removed. Whereas strobe lights and bludgeoning volume normally come as second nature, this gig took on a far more subdued stance, raising their most beloved works from their comfort zone, all while resisting the indulgence often assumed with the addition of strings. The involvement of the orchestra was, in fact, limited to a mere four songs, and while its presence added a deep, swathing sense of majesty, the set's stripped, bare-bones nature ensured it never, ever proved burdensome. When the John Logan-conducted ensemble wasn’t enlisted, meanwhile, the renditions laid down were stark and low key, shorn of inessentials, additional touring members and anything else which could conceivably have disturbed their still serenity.
This may all sound slightly underwhelming for a show granted an orchestral billing, but the results not only vindicated these arrangements, but also shone a new, arguably superior light on songs well ingrained in the hearts of followers. Classics to many, the likes of 'I Became a Prostitute,' 'Alphabet' and 'That Summer, at Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy' were laid utterly bare; their inherent beauty and token emotional clout markedly enhanced amid the riveting sparsity. Unsurprisingly, this owed much to the remarkable vocal abilities of James Graham. True, guitarist Andy MacFarlane's delicate licks held plenty of poignancy and regular sticksman Mark Devine's mix of organ and drum machine added a wealth of interesting textures, but even with their notable contributions it was the singer and his deep, weary brogue which provided the singular driving force. Given virtually free reign, his rich tones and rolled 'r's could almost be felt reverberating from the venue's stone cold walls, magnifying the band's most potent and affecting weapon to truly wondrous effect.
Of course, the numbers boosted by strings came as the main attractions, and although their strengths somewhat differed they proved equally spectacular. Bookmarking the set, 'The Wrong Car' and 'Cold Days From the Birdhouse' were perhaps the most striking exponents, their divine swells tugging heartstrings more effectively than dense distortion, fierce feedback or even MacFarlane's accordion could ever hope to, completely redefining songs as opposed to simply complimenting them. Because of this, the privilege of strings felt neither unwarranted nor contrived, and on the night culminated to create something and truly stunning.
Usually, such memories are left cherished yet diminished only in the minds of those lucky enough to attend, but in this case they've been preserved in the form of a live album, now available to download for free from FatCat Records' website. Clearly, this can't quite match the sensation of actually being there, but what it does achieve is the rare feat of conveying the show's electric atmosphere - the historic Abbey's spiritual splendour, the dim blue lighting's ice-cool glare, the echoes of Graham's voice in the vast chasm above audience heads. It may be intended as a generous stop-gap whilst new material is readied, but in practice it represents far more; a extraordinary document of a special band signing off a distinguished phase in their innings with arguably of their finest artistic coup to date. Truly, if The Twilight Sad's music has ever touched, inspired or entertained you in any way, Live at Paisely Abbey
is not a gift to be passed up.