Words by Abby Kearney
A few years ago, Portico Quartet played in Cambridge venue ‘The Junction’. Their peculiarly compelling and innovative marriage of experimental jazz and electronica induced great optimism and enthusiasm in the audience about ‘the state of music’ in the UK. Conversations after the show focused on PQ’s unusual manipulation of the bass guitar with a bow, and the growing influence of techno in their work, and everything felt pretty exciting and full of potential. Now, three years later, the quartet has become trio, ‘Portico’, who are continuing to pursue jazz fusion, and former hang-player Nick Mulvey, is now ‘Nick Mulvey’, folk inspired singer-songwriter.
The path has so far has been smooth for Mulvey; a Mercury Prize nomination for First Mind, his first album, and tonight a full Albert Hall, where audience members sit and stand tightly wedged together. On stage, the variety of instruments speak of Mulvey’s myriad influences. The hang is there, and a cello, a ukulele, keyboards and enough guitars that Mulvey can change each song. I know, because it is widely publicised, that Mulvey studied Cuban music in Havana, ethno musicology at SOAS, once had a Congolese guitar teacher and regularly enjoys North African trance. And so I was intrigued how he would reconcile his eclectic history, his former role in Portico Quartet and his new folk based direction.
It is quickly clear that Mulvey is very technically accomplished, a solid instrumentalist. In openers ‘Meet Me There’ and ‘Curucuru’ the audience is rendered still, admiring Mulvey’s skilled, lightning quick guitar plucking, occasionally emitting low ‘oohs’. The adjective most deployed in descriptions of Mulvey’s music is ‘lovely’, which is not inaccurate, his music is delivered with delicacy and care, it is restrained and hushed. He and the backing band gel well together, creating a rich, layered, pleasant resonance in the Hall.
Unfortunately, however lovely, it’s a bit sterile. He nods to the influences he has claimed for the album with the occasional guitar flourish, quirky keyboard manoeuvre, and Afro Cuban beat, but he doesn’t commit. There’s little invention, experimentation or spontaneity. Each piece is tight and self-contained, and they all sound very similar to one another. Mulvey has highlighted Nick Drake and John Martyn as lyrical influences, but there is little of their nuance, or raw bloody feeling. Instead, lots of lines that sound slightly parodic; ‘A little song about Glastonbury festival’, is how ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’, is introduced. There’s also ‘Juramidam’ a song about drinking ‘whisky and wine’, and elsewhere, musings on a girl’s flowing hair and encounters by rivers and in meadows.
If Mulvey’s aesthetic of soft, reserved folk works for you, it was probably an enjoyable show. He performed his music with confidence and assurance and fairly flawlessly. But by its close I was tired of whispered, neat tales of love in natural, open environments, mention of the sea and other bodies of water, and reflections on nostalgia. Mulvey has the ability, the extensive, varied musical tradition, to create something exciting and memorable, but tonight it felt a little too safe, a little too reserved, a little too forgettable.