The Be Good Tanyas – Royal Northern College of Music, 1/2/13

Stately, chilled, unassuming, minimalist, half-awake, intimate, magical, even a bit fey…these were some of the words that came to mind as I watched two-thirds of the Be Good Tanyas perform at the RNCM, helped out by their good friend Caroline Ballhorn. She stood in for the remaining Tanya, Sam Parton, who was still recovering from a car-crash. The core of their rhythm engine tonight was the acoustic guitar, played either by lead singer Frazey Ford, or by multi-instrumentalist Trish Klein (when she’s not playing harmonica, banjo, or electric guitar), and augmented by upright bass and brushed drums. When Sam’s around, mandolin and extra guitar and vocals get added to the mix.

I first heard the BGTs years ago on Andy Kershaw’s recommendation on Radio 3, always worth listening to if only to hear him give that explosive emphasis to the third word of their name: “And next week I’ll be playing you some more from the Be Good TANyas”. Ever since Frazey Ford’s mothwing of a voice first came fluttering out of my speakers, brushing against the cheek like warm breath on a stifling velvet-black summer night, I’ve loved their earthy but spare and elegant music. Her consonants are occasionally only barely discernible, but somehow it doesn’t bother me, because the vocal sound, especially when harmonised by the other two voices, is just so creamy and spellbinding.

Even on a bare stage, it felt as if they were really playing in the sort of funky, quirkily-furnished house you imagine the Tanyas (like the Monkees) inhabit together, with the odd harmonium or antique standard lamp, a cat strolling past the drum kit, and Manchester outside being replaced by the windswept Canadian prairie. However, that’s because I’m acquainted with all of their output, whereas a new listener might wonder what the fuss is about: they concentrated, rather unrepresentatively, on the stately, chilled end of things and largely ignored (despite requests) their earlier, more upbeat, and more instantly captivating stuff.

That’s their privilege, of course, and perhaps they’re just sick of playing “The Littlest Birds” and “It’s Not Happening”, but the current tour is to promote a best-of collection which includes some of the early material, so you’d think….Ah well, maybe it’s because they’re not fully up to strength instrumentally given Sam Parton’s absence. And you get the feeling that advising the Be Good Tanyas is a bit like telling smoke what to do. The result, with the songs tending to blur together a little, was an extremely pleasant (if occasionally soporific) night’s work.