The Revival Hour / Serafina Steer @ Village Underground, London 29.11.12

This gig saw the main section of Hoxton's Village Underground venue closed off, but the two acts playing in its chilly archway space demonstrated that small can be beautiful.

Nov 29th, 2012 at Village Underground, London / By Ben Wood
The Revival Hour Serafina Steer's third album The Moths Are Real comes out in January and is produced by Jarvis Cocker. He's demonstrated great taste once more - this is poetically strange, beguiling stuff.

Peckham's finest harpist/singer (a safe bet, I think) is accompanied by a very cool rock'n'roll dude who adds extra texture, switching between bongos, keys, drum machine and an unidentifiable ocarina-type instrument. Her clear, folky tones tell surreal short stories with the most intriguing words this reviewer has heard for a long time, and she really makes that harp sing.

The tracks with an electronic edge are reminiscent of folktronica innovators Tunng, while other tunes feel like Sandy Denny on mescaline. Her songs cover such diverse subjects as medieval home invasion; drinking a potion and meeting aliens; a ghost haunting a house party; and being left on a sinking ship. Dirty realism they are not!

This all sounds a bit self-consciously quirky, but it's not - it's utterly charming. The audience is won over from the start and utterly respectful: no-one as much as breathes during her set. Olivia Chaney adds vocals on one track, and also sings like a dream. Happily following her own path, Serafina comes across as the latest in the long and distinguished line of middle-class English musical eccentrics that includes Robyn Hitchcock and Kevin Ayers. She deserves to be big. A wonderful surprise.

The Revival Hour have quite a pedigree. John-Mark Lapham brought the electronic element to The Earlies' epic 'Beach Boys play space-folk' sound. And vocalist David Stith has recorded for Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label. In their live incarnation, the duo expand to a five-piece who make a pleasingly big sound for this small room. They tone down the weirder elements of their recorded output to create a big sound which one can imagine filling much larger spaces than this one.

There's a definite Wall of Sound vibe to many of the band's songs, with Stith's bang-on-the-money falsetto giving it a touch of the Jeff Buckley. This is soulful, powerful stuff. Stomping Motown beats, groovy organ swirls and powerful drumming create a punchy, melodic sound while a lower-key ballad makes for a welcome change of pace.

The dramatic 'Altercall' ("woman, let your heart break / in the worst way...") is a monster of a tune, and would have made a great set-closer. All too soon, the band troop offstage - they are yet to release their debut, and they've probably played most of their songs tonight. But there is one final treat as Stith returns, serenading us solo, to warm us up before we troop into the bitterly cold night.

Two very different but super-talented acts... what a bill. One of the gigs of the year.