The Vagaband, The Jess Morgan Trio, The Midwinter Players featuring The Arlenes, plus Hank Jd Sleek in the Bar – Midwinter Moonshine VI at Norwich Arts Centre 21 December 2015
The well-established tradition of The Vagaband’s “Midwinter Moonshine” (now in its sixth year) is always a highlight on the calendar and this year’s Moonshine falling on a Monday did nothing to dampen enthusiasm as it also has the tradition of drawing a sellout crowd which was duly fulfilled … and some. This year I have been to over 230 gigs and seen well over 350 different acts … this gig is well up there in the year’s highlights.
Always an uplifting and celebratory atmosphere at this event, perfectly suited to Norwich Arts Centre. It has the air of an “occasion” which is only reinforced by seeing friends and familiar faces everywhere one looks, some I hadn’t seen in months so that aspect is an added bonus and testament to the togetherness that is projected by the band and their followers and consequently everything about it has a feel-good factor before a note is even played.
The Midwinter Players are of course that loose collective of Ferals, Vagas and Arlenes with a rotating name to suit the occasion (… or made up on the spot as was the case the first time I saw them, probably for their first gig when they picked the moniker The Soggy Bottom Wet Patch Boys … a name which has Jose written all over it!) They are a delight, playing a selection of bluegrass classics with a stellar line up of Gareth (Feral Mouth) on banjo, Joe Wright (The Vagaband) on fiddle and mandolin, Jose McGill on upright bass and backing vocals, Noel Dashwood (The Vagaband, Dumbfoundus, Ferals) on dobro and vocals, Dan Reynolds (The Vagaband) on drums, plus Steve Arlene on vocals and guitar who to my great delight was joined for three or four songs by his wife Stephanie for a rare Arlenes set which featured a few gorgeous new compositions and the classic Springboard. What a treat this set was and set the standard very high for the night.
In the bar Hank Jd Sleek had set up his Hillbilly Hayride and when I saw him he was joined by the Shellac Collective’s Greg’s Greats … when Morganway’s Yve walked in it was photo opportunity time!
The next act in the auditorium was introduced by tonight’s compere, Slightly Offensive Steve, as The Jess Morgan Trio. Of course this is Jess herself with Noel and Jose – who were playing their second set of three for the night. It was really lovely and an opportunity to hear Jess’ songs and smooth voice accompanied by these great musicians. She too played with the Midwinter Players line up when I saw them in the summer. I am really liking the idea of this collective, the enthusiasm, fun and joy they feel transmits in bucketloads.
Of course the night was about The Vagaband who make this occasion quite unique, it has a joyous, celebratory air with the stage absolutely beautifully decorated by Bo Nanafana, fantastic solstice-themed moonshine projections, and an audience who just adore them. The sound of a packed NAC singing along to every much-loved familiar gem was quite a thrill. We even had a few old favourites brought back into the set and Jose was in especially fine form. The whole band were on the top of their game with a great sound and ‘Joe the Bow’ was flawlessly brilliant. The only thing missing of course was Ali, otherwise we’d have had the complete line up but she is only a month or so into her epic journey and hopefully happy adventures in the Americas. Currently in Nicaragua, so Jose had the idea of recording on his phone a Christmas message for her from the band and the audience. It was a real delight and I would love to see her reaction at a packed and happy NAC shouting her name and wishing her a heartfelt Merry Christmas.
A really super night, the best Midwinter Moonshine yet for me, loved seeing everyone, and the night’s live music closed by an on-fire Vagaband playing with that joy and enthusiasm that I and the whole audience love so much. I actually think this was the best I’ve seen them all year, probably the best one since last year’s classic Maui Waui set.
With a late bar the music continued with Hank spinning some more classic country tunes where much dancing ensued. I’m not sure many bands and places can get somewhere rocking like Norwich, The Vagaband et al did in Norwich Arts Centre tonight. Lovely – #NorwichMusicCityUK . Same time same place next year? In the meantime let’s see if we can get the Fine City twinned with Nashville, eh?
The Vagaband will be seeing in the New Year at the newly revamped Black Horse, sans Tris of course who will be at Bo Nanafana at The Talk on the same night, both events will be superb.
Big thanks to all the artists involved in the auditorium and the bar, each and every one of them was just superb, and thanks too to Norwich Arts Centre and Bo Nanafana.
The previous night I enjoyed very fine sets by The Vicars of Stiffkey, and Yve Mary B for Howlback Hum at The Playhouse Bar and a few days before that another but totally different Moonshine session at an utterly transformed (and for the better!) Cottage where house band The Kett’s Hill Gang sandwiched sets by The Fire Doves, and Iceni Rising, whose version of the Portishead classic Glory Box was just sublime. I also happily met there some good friends and many musicians including Yve once again which made for a lovely vibe. A great redesign of this pub which is now a Grain sister pub to The Plough but actually has a similar look and feel of how the Ten Bells was before its own recent refurb. That’s no bad thing. It’s homely, relaxed and comfortable and has thankfully avoided the identikit hipster look of many places these days.
All photos, videos, write up (c) Richard Shashamane 2015