Live Review: The Owl Service, Harriet Bradshaw at Chalkwell Hall

It’s just another rock and roll Thursday at Chalkwell Hall in Southend-on-Sea, home to the multi-arts organisation, Metal, who have been working in collaboration with the ‘New Traditional Songwriter’ nights run by M.G Boulter of Harbour Song Records. These nights are always special. Boulter cherry-picks artists from around the UK that he has either worked with, or been inspired by, and you always end up coming away having seen someone you won’t forget.  

Tonight, its final run, is a special billing from the leftfield outsider-folk band, The Owl Service, supported by Harriet Bradshaw, ‘Teesside’s answer to Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell’ as it states on her website. 

The hall is dimly lit inside, and outside we are surrounded by ancient trees as the venue is positioned in the middle of a park, the lighting gives an intimate, hygge, womb-like atmosphere. The audience are mostly locals, excited to be here, to get a seat and keep their coats on – it is a little chilly, and I keep mine on too, plus my hat. Harriet Bradshaw is introduced onstage by Boulter, her personality is instantly down-to-earth as she talks about where she’s from and the recent tour she’s been on.   

Bradshaw is an accomplished session player, multi-instrumentalist and a unique vocalist, the Kate Bush comparisons are valid – she has that same high, haunting, and silky voice that can go in and out of range. The audience are so quiet and attentive, you could have heard a pin drop. Bradshaw hops from piano to guitar, and her piano arrangements are particularly impressive, ‘Stone Cold’, a melancholy and dreamy song possessed the strength and drama of musical theatre. The acoustics of the venue really suited her sound – a mix of theatrical, classical, and folk. Harriet’s music made me time travel to somewhere in the past, somewhere classic, it gave me that fantasy feeling I get when I listen to Joanna Newsom or Laura Marling, taking me somewhere otherworldly and dreamy, to a place of imagination.

As the twenty-minute break concludes, beers get topped up and the smell of someone eating bacon crisps wafts over me as The Owl Service tune-up. It’s quite exciting to see all six of them with all their instruments onstage, they stand confident, guitars strapped to them like weapons, they look like they’ve been building up to this for a while. I might even take my coat and hat off. The Owl Service recently produced a 5-track EP called ‘English Country Music’, a contemporary exploration of traditional Essex folk songs, with lyrics taken from the book ‘Bushes & Briars: An Anthology of Essex Folk Songs’ (1979). The result live is stunning. It just brings that extra edge literally seeing it all play out in front of you. Lead singer, and founding member, Steven Collins, explains that the band only came together again after their hiatus because of this recent project, one they worked on for Focal Point Gallery’s ‘FPG Sounds’ project.

The band is all about collaboration, and the songs played tonight are not just written by various members of this current lineup, but also contain songs written with previous members. The opening song, ‘The New Garden Fields’, is both written and sung by Kate Waterfield. The lyrics come from an old folk love song and Kate sings in a traditional folk voice throughout. The pace is slow, and the melancholy sound of the instruments and singing is eerie. Kate’s violin playing – which in between songs seems to have a mind of its own, communicating with the amp, further ensued this spookiness.

My personal favourite is the second song of the evening, ‘Newport Street’, written by Steven and sung by Diana Collier. This song has soul, and the synth is REALThere’s something a bit exciting and magical about the sound of a synth meshing with older instruments. The sensitivity of Diana’s voice against the sound of the synthesizer made us really feel something. Those early stories of the land that most of our ancestry comes from, being sung and celebrated tonight, centuries later, was almost spiritual, and the addition of synthesisers modernised it without cheapening the sound. Bryan Styles’ exceptional drumming and Mark Offord’s bass really came into their own on this track, the basslines so sharp and clean, 80s-Tina Weymouth vibes. 

‘Faithful Plough’ comes in next, and is a change in pace, written and performed by Daniel Forbes and Steven Collins, this is more of an anthem with a 90s American rock sound that reminds me of Counting Crows or Hootie & the Blowfish, Daniel’s vocal style especially, the combination of the guitars and that early 90s positivity. Daniel has made this extremely catchy and a total earworm, particularly the chorus where the other band members join in along with the crowd. Steven then introduces ‘A Sailor’s Wife’, inspired by 80s bands like Talk Talk/Tears for Fears, and it is VERY Talk Talk, ‘Spirt of Eden’ years comes to mind. Steven admits his nerves about “getting the keys right”, but he plays brilliantly.

All of ‘English Country Music’ is emotive and affecting live. All of us were singing along, unified, with the power that unique modern folk music like this brings. The Owl Service finishes with a couple of older numbers before this intimate crowd roars for an encore. Host, M.G Boulter, wields his clipboard and The Owl Service re-appear to play us one last song, an old number called ‘Standing on the Shore’, which is uplifting and joyous, something the crowd was waiting for, as the evening has been all about joining in and coming together, so why stop now? – keep the audience participation coming – and they did! Steven Collins ends by saying “venues like this and nights like this are so important, it just shows that music, arts & culture is still alive and still very much wanted”, and we all felt that tonight.  

The Owl Service are playing at Tea & Oranges ‘Midwinter Folk’ @ Twenty-One, Southend-on-sea on Saturday, December 17th 2022, 7pm with Alison O’Donnell, Goodnight Crow & Greanvine – www.wegottickets.com/event/563112/theowlservice.bandcamp.com/