If you have ever been along the Southbank of the river Thames at the weekend there is a man close to the Tate Modern who spends his entire day enthralling kids and adults alike with buckets of soapy water and a contraption that makes cascading streams of enormous bubbles. I mention this because this popped into my head after the concert; not just because I had witnessed a hypnotising and magical show but because both Squirrel Flower and support act Hailaker held us all in the same shimmering, iridescent tension that a bubble has*.
The show started with kindred spirit Hailaker who state on their Bandcamp page that they are “…less of an artist or band than a fluid, open-ended project…founded by Jemima Coulter and Ed Tullett”. Tonight it’s Jemima Coulter on her own and despite wrestling with some non-standard guitar tunings in-between songs (jokingly blaming Ed for these) the calm power of Jemima’s voice visits a reverie on the audience that is so complete no one talks even during tuning. The lush guitar playing created balance and resonance with the tunes allowing the songs, which would normally have more instrumentation, to sound fully realised. It was an outstanding start to the evening.
Squirrel Flower – AKA Ella O’Connor Williams – is currently touring in support of the album I Was Born Swimming and it was the single from this, ‘Red Shoulder’ that had ear wormed it’s way into my life; I pre-ordered the album on about the third listen. The set drew mainly from the new album along with a handful of tracks from 2016’s Contact Sports as well as a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Hold On’. The recorded songs have light and dark passages with added grit from semi-fuzzed guitar and a full band and Ella did confess to having some trepidation as it had been over four years since she had performed a purely acoustic show. I think it’s a testament to how good a song is when it can be played with a full band, just a guitar/piano or with a washboard and tuba and despite the confession of apprehension I doubt a single person in the audience felt they’d ordered a three course meal and only had soup.
This was a show of rare brilliance and, like a bubble, where the surface tension traps an atmosphere inside, Ella’s performance made it feel like the venue had slipped its moorings and drifted off; slightly out of phase with the real world. It’s a real privilege to be in the same room with a voice this truly exceptional. At the low end there is a tremble; a slight abrasion that sits as a fragile counterpoint to the sovereignty of the high notes which come as if from nowhere. There are no extreme ‘rock faces’ on display but with only a slight widening of Ella’s mouth a voice of extreme power pours out; one that could blow candles out at 100 paces. Song after song the audience had to shake off the spell each one cast to even contemplate applauding. This must be the feeling astronomers get when they find a new planet. There was a delightful moment when Ella showed concern for the motionless audience; acknowledging that this is music that doesn’t lend itself to dancing and encouraged us to stretch if we needed to. She also shared a cautionary tale of how her time in a choir had taught her that standing still with locked-legs could lead to choir members passing out from the lack of movement.
Being in such close quarters with a performer as talented as Squirrel Flower was a blissful experience. This was also one of the most attentive audiences I have ever been in; with barely a cough out of anyone for the duration of both sets. I’m sure as Ella’s fame grows she’ll keep returning to the UK at larger and larger venues with more and more musicians but I hope she still pops in the odd solo gig at small venues like this so I can live in the Squirrel Flower bubble again.
*Fun fact: the surface tension of water provides the necessary wall tension for the formation of bubbles with water. The tendency to minimize that wall tension pulls the bubbles into spherical shapes (LaPlace’s law). Source: Hyperphysics
Review and Photography by Paul F Cook