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Review: Stems + Heg Doughty + Mouse Deer at Leftbank, Bristol

On first listen they seem like a slightly more classical sounding Dirty Three. It’s beautiful, intense and compelling.

Stems

Stems

The Leftbank is one of those wicked little Bristol venues which is all too easy to miss. Tucked between the Pipe and Slippers and The Social on Cheltenham Road, it’s best known as a language college – but tonight, it’s a deliciously intimate gig venue for this one off charity fundraiser gig for Figure 8 Festival.

First onto the tiny makeshift stage, which is tucked under the stairwell (but not in an afterthought kinda way) is Mouse Deer. Mouse Deer is the solo project for Bristol musician Holly McIntosh, who can usually be seen playing with Schnauser. It has the same indie sensibilities, but offers a much less tongue in cheek approach to lyrics than some of the Schnauser material and tackles issues from relationship breakdowns to self doubt. Sitting firmly on the right side of twee, Holly’s indie librarian-look suits her music perfectly, catchy guitar riffs and slightly self-depricating but at the same-time self-assured vocals complete the ensemble to create music which would sit perfectly alongside the likes of Allo Darlin, Emmy The Great and Belle & Sebastian. Playing a lengthy set, Holly gets better with each song – her excellent vocals and understated electric guitar playing making for a pretty unique show.

Flying the flag for the female vocals, Heg Doughty takes over where Holly left off. Armed with nothing but a keyboard and a lone violinist (she usually plays with her band The Wolf Chorus), Heg launches into a set of spine-tingling, creative ballads about fairytales and relationships. Her crystal clear, powerful vocals fill the room as she plays the keys with the same emotion and conviction as Anthony (of Anthony and the Johnsons fame), with the violin parts complimenting Heg perfectly. As well as the all-to-easy, but thoroughly deserved, comparisons to Kate Bush and Tori Amos, there’s hints of Joni Mitchell in her vocals and Anna Calvi. With an overriding theatrical vibe, this is mesmerising to watch and would be equally as enjoyable to listen to on record. Truly beautiful.

And a perfect support act for the intensive Stems. This Huddersfield-based trio comprise two violinists and one electric guitarist/vocalist, John Dorr. On first listen they seem like a slightly more classical sounding Dirty Three. It’s beautiful, intense and compelling. But as the you’re taken on a journey, throughout their set, you get the impression you’re hearing something much much bigger. In fact, despite numbering just three, you could well be hearing a full orchestra at times, the execution is that powerful. When Dorr steps up to the mic to add in some vocals, the vibe changes slightly. The previously overarching ethereal classical sound becomes much more  contemporary, with a definite nod towards Spiritualized or Sigur Ros. You can imagine this music in a  number or scenarios; a soundtrack to a film, playing as the sun goes down on an idyllic rural festival or seeing you safely into a slumber on a cold winter’s night.

This gig proves a near perfect composition of acts – the unique electric guitar/dreamy vocals of the solo act Mouse Deer, through the classical folk-tinged duo fronted by Heg Doughty to the extraordinary trio of travelling musicians (in this instance anyway) that is Stems. A brilliant evening of brilliant music in a blimmin brilliant venue.

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