Wow. It feels like a lifetime since I sat down to write a review of some genuine, real life, live music. Hopefully I still remember how! Hopping on the train to a different city, gathering in a venue with actual people, that buzz of anticipation that ripples through the crowd as the artists take to the stage – experiencing it all again after nearly two years apart is a strange sensation. In some ways it felt alien compared to this odd new normality we’ve become all accustomed to, but after a while it felt like stepping back into your old shoes like things had never changed. I guess when live music charms your heart that feeling never really goes away. Fingers crossed though that theory need never be put to the test again, and that this marks the triumphant return of live music in our lives. Where better to get reacquainted with the glory of gigs than the heart of Manchester, and surely there’s no better artist to jump back in with than one of the last performers I saw before everything kicked off – the wonderful Megan Dixon Hood.
Continuing my Manchester tradition of seemingly never visiting the same venue twice, I found myself for the first time at the legendary Deaf Institute. With the building’s history, the tiered seats and balcony adding an extra dimension to an otherwise compact space, and elegant staging that really draws the room together, it’s easy to see why it holds a place in people’s hearts. Hopefully when I eventually come back around to revisiting venues it will be first on the list. The warm welcoming room was the ideal respite from the dreary drizzle outside, as was the gorgeous atmosphere offered by opening act Ruth Owens. Her set was a world away from a grey autumnal cityscape, instead evoking a blissful riverbank shimmering in the morning sun like something from The Wind in the Willows. Ruth’s impressive vocal runs added a soulful sheen to the dreamy folk arrangements, the end result as soft as eiderdown. It was only on the closing track with its stunning guitar solo that the tranquil dream took a brief psychedelic trip, as the soothing sojourn on the riverside went full ‘piper at the gates of dawn’. (I feel a need to give a quick shout out to the bassist also, who was a bit boxed away in the corner – I see you fella, you’re doing sterling work!)
When you’re bombarded with new music every day you rarely get a moment to savour new discoveries; you say your piece and move on to the next release, without being afforded the time to explore the rest of an artist’s work. With that in mind, it was an absolute delight to catch Rebekah Fitch live as one of the support acts after covering her song ‘Dust‘ last year. The few tracks I knew beforehand in her set were given new life in a live setting, and the new material I heard, like her latest track ‘Loose Ends’, really showcased her talents as a songwriter. It was interesting to see her take to the stage solo and use the Jack Garratt approach of playing every part herself, looping together keys, synths, percussion and even flute to weave a vibrant tapestry of sound. Even being pulled in so many directions at once she had a superb stage presence; from her rich versatile vocals flitting between haunting balladry and powerhouse pop, to the sincere insights she offered into the inspiration behind each track.
Going without gigs for so long is frustrating, and I’m sure it feels even more so for the artists themselves. It’s easy for the screws to come loose and to fall out of practice in that time, so a few hiccups are inevitable when jumping back into the swing of things. Case in point there were a few technical gremlins plaguing the start of Megan’s set, with the keys on the blink and the guitar a tad too loud in the mix, but not enough to drag the set down too much. Kinks aside, it was plain to see that Megan and the band were in their element. Her dark gothic storytelling and soaring spellbinding vocals provided a fittingly bewitching performance in the run up to Halloween. The whole ensemble coming together in full force for the grander tracks in their repertoire, with enough gusto to clear away the cobwebs in a venue double the size.
You could feel the energy in the room change as soon as Megan took to the stage, and that feeling persisted for the rest of the night. Her set just bubbled over with joie de vivre and a palpable sense of celebration. The buzz of being in a room together again, combined with the sense of community built up with fans through livestreams over the course of the pandemic. The kaleidoscopic, dance-inducing nature of newer tracks like ‘St Lucia’ and ‘Third Lung‘, each swirling and shimmering like a Catherine wheel. And above all how Megan’s own unbridled joy and exuberance at being on stage again fed into her spirited performance and just left you feeling revitalised. They say you should always leave them wanting more, and Megan and her boys certainly did that. Even after a busy tiring week, with both mind and body being rather out of practice at being this active and social, I would happily have kept the party going through the night, and something tells me I’m not the only one.