On January 30, Bostonian quartet Darlingside cast a spell over the crowded basement of the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton. Every element of their performance contributed to this, from the charming, funny patter between songs to the use of one old-school microphone in the middle, around which they all crowded.
From the beginning, the audience was treated to a wonderful flurry of stringed instruments, changing hands and changing tunings between every song. As they progressed through their set, electric guitars, a bass, cello, banjo, mandolin and violin all appeared, and peppered here and there, there were even one or two synthesizer keyboard.
Darlingside’s reflective sound is clearly steeped in the American folk tradition, but it simultaneously avoids sounding like country music. The instrumentation and performance style were a testament to this, as were the beautifully synchronized four-part vocal harmonies, weaving an energetic nostalgia. This extensive reference to folk music imbued the music with two key characteristics, allowing it to cast the spell it did.
The first of these was the sense of being taken back in time, not necessarily to a historical past, but more to an emotional past. The opening lyrics in “The God Of Loss” (the opening song of the gig), for example, are “My father was a carpenter, my mother she died young”. The song scours the singer’s past, not only reviewing all the times something important was lost, but reliving them and pulling the listener into them.
The second characteristic that helped cast the spell, was an almost ineffable sense of wandering in the woods. Of course this was largely afforded by the predominantly acoustic instrumentation, but also, the close harmonies of the breathy, almost chanted singing.
The lyrics too were active in this: a good example of which was the song “She’s All Around“, where they sing about “rain on the pastures”, and that “the weeds and the wildflowers all have families to feed”. This all generated a sound-world populated by forests, rolling hills and open fields. Even the musicians’ clothing – thick, checked and colourful flannel shirts – contributed to this sonic image of the American countryside.
Other elements of Darlingside’s playing, however, were certainly forward-facing. In “Go Back“, they sung about time travel, and more than once (such as in “Eschaton“) they dealt with the apocalypse. These touches of futurism extended beyond the lyrical and thematic content, however, and there was the occasional use of electronic instruments.
One of them was a small, handheld electronic keyboard, amusingly referred to as ‘the toy’, and another was larger iteration of roughly the same thing. The latter of these was used to create looped, arpeggiated figures that lay at the bottom of the otherwise wholly acoustic sound, very much in the manner of Bon Iver.
This contrast of old and new was formed gracefully, and the resultant ‘future folk’ sounded at the same time hopeful and nostalgic, but always poetic, gentle and loving. In fact, there was a carefree yet kind-hearted feeling to the music, which matched the happy mood of the highly talented musicians, obviously doing what was so right for them.
This was clear in “White Horses“, where there was no distinguishable change from the tuning of the instruments to the start of the song: it just unfolded naturally.
That all the musicians of Darlingside were totally in their element came across abundantly. In between songs, they would take turns to address the crowd, and told funny little stories or cracked jokes.
At times they even seemed to be transforming the set into a stand-up comedy show. This further contributed to the homespun aesthetic of the evening, which was genuine: they came out to the bar and mingled with the crowd after the performance was over.
Another impressive contrast was that of the musical textures within individual songs. The dynamics fluctuated with ease, and the four members of Darlingside lightly jumped between fully-involved instrumentation and almost completely stripped-back playing (as in “Whippoorwill“).
This mapped onto the emotional quality of the music, guiding the listener through despair, happiness and everything in between, but with an ever-present tenderness.
Overall this concert was a huge success, and the energetic, wholly unified performance of Darlingside earned them a warm and appreciative applause at the end. They seemed genuinely moved by their reception, and throughout the concert had spoken about how much they love London and the UK. Perhaps they will be back before too long.
Words by Ed Edwards