The best gigs are those which feel like a moment of unity in a place that matters. Martha Tilston proved that in the spectacular room at the top of Bristol’s Trinity Centre, a church in Easton converted into a collectively-owned community venue. As the audience drifts in, the last shafts of May twilight filter through the intricate stained glass window arching above the floor-level stage, on which a guitar, a bozouki, tabla and more sit waiting on dark bare floorboards. There are cushions scattered in front of the band, and tiered seating stretching back behind, which gradually fill while dusk creeps over the room. Laura Marling’s Semper Femina sways and swoons on the stereo as the anticipatory audience murmurings ebb and flow.
Opening the night is Nathan Ball, who has previously collaborated with Tilston. He laces folkish melodies with smartly observant lyrics, underpinned on acoustic guitar by blues-infused progressions that are punctuated by rippling flourishes. His frank songs are warmly received, interspersed with good humoured self-deprecating remarks about his playing, and his discomfort in the suit he has (unusually) donned for the occasion. He praises Bristolians for shouting at Theresa May when she visited the city this week, before concluding with a couple of wonderfully stubborn songs that neatly capture the political frustration felt by many at the moment.
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And this sensitively-wrought anger sets the tone perfectly for Tilston’s set, which persuasively oscillates between introspective social commentary and idealistic hedonism. Beginning with ‘Survival Guide’, she captivates from the moment she picks up her guitar. She tells us that she grew up in Bristol, asking the audience whether Easton’s adventure playground is still there, and she’s delighted when they reply that it is. This charming attention to detail, the unending human-ness of her delivery, is really where the power of her performance lies. The songs are excellent, her voice is superb and her band are faultless, but its her pervasive sense of soul – singing with her whole body, flitting between microphones set to different reverb levels – that imbues the set with a sense of visceral presence.
Her brand of folk, with a sensual groove and a modern lyrical twist, is unashamedly honest but never twee. ‘Stags Bellow’ is delivered with muted power, ending on a wild crescendo that feels like a jam, intimate and grandiose all at once. She invites the audience to join in on ‘Nomad Blood’, proclaiming the age-old wanderer’s dilemma of choosing between roots or the road, the crowd echoing her enthusiastically. Most of the band, and several of the audience, have taken off their shoes. Even with a few hundred people here it feels like a house concert, especially when the chuckles and squawks of a toddler in the quiet moments aren’t hushed, but welcomed by artist and audience alike.
The crowd joins in on another new song, poignant and philosophical without being overly didactic as it contemplates life and death by the light of the moon. Traditional song ‘Lovely In The Water’ is immediately followed with a stunning cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Better Things’, explaining that her record collection consists entirely of 70s revivalist folk and 90s trip hop. This is Martha Tilston in a nutshell. She asks the audience to believe in a world in which a singer can juxtapose Massive Attack with old folk ballads, just as she asks them to believe that the planet can exist in harmony someday – and listening to her, you can’t help but agree that it’s possible.
She speaks, between the songs, of her fears and hopes for society. Introducing ‘Blue Pearl’, she worries that we are ‘sleepwalking into everything we design’, raising the artist’s flag for defiance against the norm. On ‘Artificial’, she sings of breaking out of the somnambulant office and running away to the sea, damning the company policy and pleading for a little humanity – and her outstanding band get to let rip a little. Inviting an old friend (‘Uncle Keith’) up to the stage to play harmonica for ‘Seagull’, she deftly removes a long feather earring during an irresistible instrumental section to liberate herself for more dynamic guitar-dancing. The politest heckler ever known requests ‘A Sprig of Thyme’, a folk song that she sings acapella with breathtaking poise. She remarks: ’I feel like we’re in a living room, can someone put the kettle on?’, before inviting Nathan Ball, now sitting in the audience, to return to the stage to duet on folk song ‘The House Carpenter’.
Urging everyone to keep supporting live music, she comes to the end of the set, rounding off with the emphatic ‘Good World’, complete with more crowd singing. The audience stamp and shout for an encore, and when she returns, she steps out from the line of microphones to stand in front of the audience. Strong, vulnerable, unabashed, she raises her voice once more to sing the mesmerising ‘Silver Dagger’ un-amplified and minimally accompanied by violin, before slipping away.
In less vibrant hands, the poetry at the core of her songs might be pious platitudes, but Tilston’s joy and conviction translates them into peaceful – yet fiery – political truths. To sing, and most importantly to sing together, is not futile; rather, it is an act that contains an immense power which is hard to break. These are dark days, but, as she sings so beautifully, we live in a good world, a fine world, and we must remember this.
All Photos by : Pete Middleton