Eb and Sparrow

8 October, Spiegeltent
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival 2017

A life without expectations is probably a happy one.

Knowing really nothing about Eb and/or Sparrow, beyond the promotional description in the arts festival booklet, I nevertheless had a surprisingly fixed idea of what I was in for before the gig. This would be, I decided, a kind of celebratory hoedown to mark the end of the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival, a chance to get our (strictly figurative) ya ya’s out as a reward for our two weeks of committed and sometimes patient cultural adventuring. The Eb and Sparrow Showcase – obviously some expanded brassy Vegas version of themselves – would close things out with a bang and a twang.

Imagine my surprise, then, as I entered the Spiegeltent, and found that its central space, which my mind had already designated the dance floor, was in fact filled with chairs, all of them filled (the gig being sold out).

After a fervent introduction by Jamie MacPhail, the band sifted onto the stage, established their hometown credentials, and started to play. But this music was not what I had in mind. Its drowsy melancholia seemed doomed to sink this night. Though the musicians’ skill and sensitivity was not in doubt, somehow the result of all those trumpets and guitars and voices and things was a cushioned, anodyne kind of alt-country, more MOR, than noir, and I thought immediately of Dylan’s line from Visions of Johanna, “…and the country music station plays soft/ but there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off.”

But, you know, maybe I was missing something. Ebony Lamb’s voice has grit. And the French horn – well, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel the French Horn. The unusually long slow slide-guitar auroras seemed to be pulling this music into another genre, one we don’t really associate with slide guitar. So drenched in reverb as their sound is – or as its fluid, overlapping arrangements make it seem – Eb and Sparrow sound at times like a classic shoegaze band, like Lush or Curve, playing C & W.

Even so, I got the sense of a reserved and polite kind of playing – and as a friend pointed out (soon after she was shhh-ed by an usher), the volume was low, you could easily talk over it – was this in deference to the obdurately seated mass clogging up my dance floor, who mostly did not even so much as nod their heads to the music but sat transfixed by the performers? Eb kindly speculated that they were all dancing on the inside.

After the intermission,  Eb coped with a technical issue by turning up her guitar, the band followed suit, the music got bluesier and the temperature went up. Dancing, had there been a dance floor, was now a much more plausible proposition. They turned in a cracking version of Etta James’ ‘I Would Rather Go Blind’, where Eb demonstrated just how much like Janis Joplin she can sound.

Ultimately though, the quiet returned in the encore as the band closed out with fan favourite ‘Little Hands’. For me this was the highlight, a perfect miniature of interleaved instruments and delicate textures where the band seemed to transcend their allegiance to any label or genre. It was a tender end to a very loved festival; not with a bang, then, but a whisper.

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