On a freezing cold December evening with a thin layer of snow covering the grounds outside, gracing Sheffield Cathedral with their presence three days prior to the Winter Solstice are the musically unique Mediaeval Baebes. With only founding member Katharine Blake remaining from 1997 debut album 'Salva Nos', their 2009 incarnation sees them stripped down to the smallest number of Baebes in the band's history, although the five other ladies alongside Blake in the current lineup have brought with them a plethora of musical talent and quasi-theatrical charisma. Arriving onstage around 8pm and attired in flowing purple dresses, minimalist lighting ambiently illuminates the Baebes against an impressive backdrop of Sheffield Cathedral's elegant architecture as they begin with a short a cappella piece, 'Umlahi', before the trio of musicians that comprise their backing band kick in with the opening bars to 'Desert Rose', first track from innovative new album 'Illumination'. Composed by Emily Alice Ovenden (who is also currently fast rising to prominence in the metal scene with Gothic-themed sympho-power metallers Pythia), the song's diatonic Phrygian-based Eastern themes serve as an apposite contraposition between the Baebes almost exclusively Mediaeval-biased compositions for which they were originally famed and how they have musically progressed as a band. While some have criticised them for such a progression, their trademark aesthetic remains intact, with 'Desert Rose' a prime example - the anachronism of contemporary songwriting with Mediaeval instrumentation is both skilled and ambitious, though works a treat. And by fuck does the song sound immense in its live guise. With the new release heavily represented in their two forty five minute sets, the audience are also treated to airings of 'Suscipe Flos Florem', 'To The One', 'I Sing Of A Maiden', 'The Blacksmiths', 'My Lady Sleeps', 'Yonder Lea', 'Mad Song', and 'Sunrise'. The latter sees Ovenden inviting the audience to sing "Sunrise" when prompted by newest Baebe Sarah Kayte Foster clapping hands above her head, to which a large number of the crowd participate, albeit in a fairly subdued manner. The majority present seem transfixed by the allure of the Baebes' music which, for me, peaks at the close of the first set with 'The Blacksmiths', a Bev Lee Harling composition - the powerful, yet ethereal, vocal harmonies that comprise the song's second half are an expression of pure sublimity through music and resonate around the cathedral's interior with an aura of grandeur that is captivating to experience. 'Illumination' material is interspersed with older fan favourites like 'Come My Sweet', 'The Snake', 'Musa Venit Carmine', 'Undrentide', and the cacophony of voices that constitutes the sonically jarring, and rather awesome, 'How Death Becomes'. Short narrative pieces uttered by various Baebes, sometimes prose, occasionally poetry, precede and contextualise some songs (and colour the performance with a part-theatrical essence), whereas others receive a more plainspoken introduction such as when Blake informs the audience that 'The Sour Grove' is based on a Mediaeval Welsh poem written by a woman in reaction to the plethora of male-penned poetry romanticising every physical aspect of the female form although omitting any reference to genitalia! Temporarily leaving the stage during the second set to change from white to green dresses affords the girls' backing band an instrumental spot, including some virtuoso cittern widdlings in what can only be described as a Mediaeval Malmsteen (those who've heard Yngwie's neo-classical acoustic-based pieces will know what I mean). The Baebes themselves also demonstrate talents beyond skilful vocalising with an array of instruments including violin, flute and recorder on various songs and Blake, self-proclaimed 'musical director' of the band, can be seen 'conducting' her five comrades with elaborate hand gestures throughout. Closing with 'Kinderly' from 'Worldes Blysse' the previous two hours seem to have passed by all too quick, but such is the absorbing nature of the Baebes music and performance, intensified by the breathtaking acoustics of the cathedral (which thankfully has underfloor heating and a makeshift bar selling hot mulled wine - bonus!). Just as much as Mediaeval Baebes' music is unparalleled and innovatively unique within the scene, the live show also transcends your average gig, with the overall effect being one of visual and aural enchantment in which you can immerse yourself and get lost. Awesome on every level, and truly sublime.
Friday 18th December 2009
Sheffield Cathedral, UK
Review & Photography by Mark Holmes
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