REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Kitty VR and Boss Caine, NCEM, York, 9/9/2021

Kitty VR: Playing her first gig for seven months at the NCEM churchyard. Picture: Neil Chapman/Unholy Racket

REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Kitty VR and Boss Caine, National Centre for Early Music churchyard, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York

THE inaugural Songs Under Skies season of open-air acoustic concerts in the NCEM churchyard resumes with Polly Bolton and Henry Parker tomorrow, concluding with Elkyn and Fawn on Thursday (both nights sold out).

Alas the skies were so sodden for the opening night that Amy May Ellis and Luke Saxton had to scurry indoors for their show, but the great British weather was on best behaviour for double bill number three, Kitty VR and Boss Caine last Wednesday, co-hosted by the NCEM, The Crescent and the Fulford Arms under the campaigning umbrella of the Music Venues Alliance.

At least a couple of sets of gravestones were not obeying social distancing, but this was a Covid-secure event in every way, from the requirement to sanitise hands on arrival to the one-way system in operation for entering and leaving the NCEM church building (wearing masks when inside too).

Audience members were seated in pods – or perhaps “God pods”, because we were in a churchyard – as a full garden gathered, full of the joy of being able to watch Kitty VR live, rather than in VR in that virtual reality hinterland of Zoom that has substituted stoically in lockdown and beyond.

Gravestones at the NCEM: Standing out from the social-distancing measures at the Songs Under Skies concerts

Kitty nearly came a cropper before the start, falling in an unseen hole as she carried her box of CDs, but thankfully not disappearing like Alice into Wonderland.

Once on stage, Kitty cut a composed, quietly spoken, contemplative figure in familiar  singer-songwriter mode, a la Laura Marling, so much so that her spectral electric guitar would never have said Boo to any passing acoustic music wardens or below-ground churchyard inhabitants for that matter.

In her first concert since lockdown, Kitty introduced new song Wisteria, rhyming that butterfly of short-lived flowers with hysteria, rather than listeria in these pandemic times, unless the Hutch hearing was failing, and revealed a predilection for single-word titles – Dimensions, Whirlpool, Slumber – and single-speed compositions in life’s slow lane.

Closing with an acoustic rendition of Release on a stool, her sunsetting set was the balm before the country, blues and even rockabilly storm of Boss Caine, aka Daniel Lucas, the stalwart sentinel of the York gig scene for so long in his rapscallion role as the city’s grizzled answer to Tom Waits.

Boss Caine and stand-up bassist Paddy Berry playing Songs Under Skies after rehearsing remotely. Picture: Neil Chapman/Unholy Racket

He has been creative in lockdown, writing sleepless nocturnal songs for Bandcamp  premieres and EPs and now airing them live, as darkness descended and lighting picked out the churchyard trees’ frameworks as subtly as watercolours.

“We’re going to be brave and play a completely new set,” said Lucas, who had rehearsed remotely with stand-up bass player Paddy Berry and would now be playing together for the first time. All the more reason to love to this troubadour tornado.

“If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die high,” he sang defiantly…“I could use a little chemical sedation”… “I’ll even put your secret into one of my songs”… “Take me out like a Kennedy”…the memorable lyrics kept a’coming.

“No-one will be offended if I use a Conference League swear word, will they?”, he said, more as a statement, rather than seeking permission. Lucas has always been a master of the banter too.

Kitty VR closes her set by playing an acoustic version of Release, taking to the stool after her guitar strap broke the day before. Picture: Neil Chapman/Unholy Racket

“You keep going for the song,” he reasoned for not caving in to the stultifying impact of Covid-19, before a self-deprecating finale flourish. “This is a song about people having complaints after Boss Caine gigs,” he announced.

Too much that, not enough this, they say. Wrong, wrong, wrong, on all counts. Instead, in his concluding words, Boss Caine will always “Burn on bright, burn on bright again”: York’s torch-bearer for why live music at its best will always be a thrill, a rush, like no other.

Kitty VR, by the way, has contributed a haunted solo rendition of Colour Me In, Phil Grainger and lyricist Alexander Flanagan Wright’s finest composition, to The Mythstape, the North Yorkshire duo’s gradually emerging mixtape of recordings by their favourite artists of songs from their two-hander shows Orpheus, Eurydice and Gods Gods Gods.

The Howl And The Hum’s Sam Griffiths has applied his golden brush to Tumble Down, from Eurydice, now floating high on angel’s wings. Watch this space for news of more Myth making…

…Oh, and Phil, could you please deliver on your sort-of promise to record your own versions too. Make that particular myth come true!

Phil Grainger, left, and Alexander Flanagan Wright: Inviting Kitty PR, Sam Griffiths and fellow favourite singers to record their songs from Orpheus, Eurydice and Gods Gods Gods for The Mythstape. Picture: Charlotte Graham

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