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Zoe Wren

Venue: Betsy Trotwood
Town: London
Date: 3/3/18

Gold & Smoke EP Launch

I was fortunate enough to review Zoë's EP "Gold & Smoke" before it's recent release and so couldn't wait for the launch to see how it would translate from the controled environment of a studio to a live performance, especially as it would be one of those rare occasions when Zoë had a band around her. It turned out to be rather special.

The Betsy Trotwood already has artistic links, Betsy being a character in Dickens' David Copperfield, and is one of those music pub venues that are such a vital resource for artists who are starting out or want a smaller stage. Downstairs is a basement which is certainly intimate, whilst upstairs is also a small space but better laid out for the audience. It has a triangular stage in one corner, which was tight for a quartet and involved them perching on window sills when not playing but it all worked. Mention has to be made of the sound, which was excellent and credit must go to Joe Mashiter on the desk. In between the two auditoria is a proper pub selling a good range of beers at reasonable London prices and food is served, although the kitchen isn't always open on a weekend.

The last knocking of the "Beast from the East" made it impossible for some people, including MC Brian Player, to travel but the room was packed and it was excellent to see several performers in the crowd who had also been given their start by the Folkstock Arts Foundation and Record lable. It's an organisation that fosters that kind of community and founder Helen Meissner stepped in as MC.

Opening the evening was a very good supporting set from Emma Lohan ( from the west coast of Ireland, but now London based. She does have a band but on this occasion played as a duo with lead guitarist Al Ballantine and whilst the sound may have been less punchy the focus on the lyrics adequately compensated. She says of herself "My words are like birds, they fly away" and her songs tend to be a stream of consciousness that are hard to corral into a genre. "1957", for example, takes two seemingly unrelated events but finds common ground. 1957 was the year Laika became the first dog in space, on what was clearly a one-way ticket. The song questions what she felt when she suddenly found herself alone, with all her trainers and human companions nowhere to be seen and then goes to to compare that with the end of a love affair.

There's also politics in her work, not strident politics but a quiet yet telling plea for reason. "The Eighth" is a song about the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland which effectively outlawed abortion, even in cases where the mother's life could be at risk. Instead of looking at the broader issues Emma concentrates on just one case, that of Savita Halappanavar, who died of septic miscarriage and part of the reason for her death was uncertainty in the Law, which meant that medical staff treating her could have faced a life sentence for inducing an abortion that may have saved her life. It is moving stuff, that needs to be said. Emma has an album due out in the autumn and on this showing it will certainly be one to listen to. Event dates are few and far between at the moment, and mostly in Ireland, but hopefully more people will get the chace to experience her live in the future.

After a short break Zoë and her band took to the stage for the first half of a fourteen song set list, which is an impressive count for somebody launching their second EP. She opened the set gently with "When This Old Hat Was New", a story of a man looking back over his life but it was also a chance to meet the band. This consisted of Lauren Deakin-davies on electric guitar, who is also the EP's producer, Nathaniel Chapman on bass and Zac Lakota-Baldwin on bodhran. I've seen Zoë as a solo artist in the past, and also accompanied by Zac, but this was my first experience of a band and I have to say it worked very well. The additional instrumentation and supporting vocals added depth and complexity to the sound. It allowed Zoë to become more than the very good folk singer we know she is, broadening the range of her work. I think that will be important if she wants to move outside a strictly folk environment and she certainly has the songs to appeal to a much wider audience.

Next up was on old favourite. "45 Fever" is, as she descibes it, a song about a delusion old man who still thinks he's a cowboy living in a Western. The song builds towards his High Noon moment, which turns out to be trying to get up the stairs to bed. It's both moving and humourous and told with a great deal of sympathy.

Equally moving is another song from that first EP "Pandora's Box". "Just Another Song Away" is based on a true story of a blind, widowed, busker who was trying to raise enough money to get to Moroco where - he had been assured - he could find a new wife although we never find out if he suceeded in his quest. The compassion in this song, without letting us know the answer, also carries over to "London Town", which is essentially a song about the Night Tube and Buses in London but could be a love song. At the very end the eyes of the two characters, a nurse and a musician, meet but we never discover if it ever goes any further. Everyone was rooting for them, though.

This ability to tell a story we can relate to, combined with the quality of Zoë's voice has a very immediate effect on an audience who listen with the most rapt attention to her songs, in absolute silence, but the applause at the end of each one showed how well they were received. The set list for the evening was well thought out, ranging from the full band, to Zoë and Zac and with solos mixed in. Another good decision was to leave the other band members in place when they weren't playing, as with such a small stage and crowded room it would have been hard to move them around without disrupting events. That attention to detail is the sign of somebody who knows exactly what she's doing.

The evening flew past, with all the songs from the EP being played. It's full of really good music but my personal favourite is "If I Had A Voice" which is a reworking of the traditional "Oh No John". In the original song a father tries to defend his daughter's honour by instructing her to say no to any question, until somebody works out he can trick her by asking a negative question so that her negative response becomes assent and is slightly humourous. In this modern version, however, the woman is trapped in a loveless relationship, working two jobs to get by and unable to break out of a cycle where her life has become both meaningless and worthless. It's a piece of real quality writing and that is something that defines Zoë's songs. "We Can't Close Our Eyes" is a protest song but the target is "us", not "them". Change isn't going to happen through apathy but through action.

Zoë is part of what appears to be a modern folk revival, although I'm sure it isn't a planned movement. She's a very gifted sonwriter and folk singer, but isn't content to be defined by a genre so there are aspects of Country and Pop in her music which means she's equally at home at a folk club or venue. She's also not afraid to tackle the classics and standards, keeping the tradition whilst not being tied to it. We were given a beautiful version of "Wild Mountain Thyme" a song that is being becoming very popular again, as are the works of more recent songwriters like Sandy Denny. Zoë isn't the first to tackle "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" recently and she does it very well. I doubt there was a person in the audience who didn't know every word, it's one of the great standards, but Zoë kept it simple and let the words tell the story. That was the right approach.

The last song of the night was the title track to the EP "Gold & Smoke" and there was a real sense of regret in the room that the night was over. In such a small place I could see the set list on the stage and there was no encore planned, but we weren't going to let her go without one. The final song became Zoë and Zac giving us another traditional song, "Lily of the West". It was quite a priviledge to be at the album launch. Zoë has, for her young age, long had a reputation as one finest singers around but what we're seeing now is a growing maturity and confidence that is starting to move her onwards and upwards. I believe it won't be long before her name becomes far more widely recognised and the stages much bigger.

"Gold & Smoke" is now available through the artist's website or Folkstock Records , but buy it at a live show if you can as you'll get the chance to see somebody who really is one to watch out for.

Tony Birch - Words, Pictures

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