The Gryphon, Bristol
Tuesday, 9th May 2023
Embedded in the wedgiest end of an upstairs room at the cheese-like Gryphon in Bristol, a performance area can be found. The ‘stage’ is about 10ft at its widest, tapering to around half that at the back, and this tiny room above Bristol’s premier metal pub is an incongruous setting for Jo Quail’s idiosyncratic mix of classical technique, electronic doo-daddery and metallic attitude. It’s an alluring combo, and given that the limited tickets sold out on the day of release, Jo is clearly selling herself short. Her skills knocked me sideways the first time I saw her, at the Portals Festival in 2021, and I jump at the chance to see her play whenever the opportunity arises, this being the fourth time I’ve seen her in a little over 18 months. It’s a no-brainer – she really is that good.
Support tonight comes from Dead Space Chamber Music, who are playing with Jo throughout her UK tour, but Bristol is a home fixture for them. The name certainly works for me, but what of the sounds?
Playing as a guitar/samples and vocals/percussion duo tonight, DSCM are usually a quartet, also featuring cello and drums – and based on the evidence of this performance, the full band line-up should be a blast. The stripped down set-up of Tom Bush’s guitar and Ellen Southern’s voice and musique concrete, all wrapped up in swirling loops and atmospheric electronics, is mesmerising from start to finish. I have no idea how many pieces they played, but they seem to be long – the first break leaving the audience unsure what to do, resolved at the next pause by someone helpfully asking the band if it was OK to clap! Once sorted out, the applause was healthily delivered.
The sound suggests Medieval atmospherics, from religious and secular sources via Ellen’s beautiful and haunting voice, transposed into the modern world via loops, delayed guitar and miced up psaltery (an intriguing zither-esque thing, either bowed or plucked). There seems to be a lot of Latin involved in the words, but it often comes across as Pagan ritual, echoing with influences from plainchant, Celtic and possibly North African sources. I have no idea what it’s all about but it is enchanting – religious in the same way that The Omen is.
Small percussive items are deployed to fine rhythmic effect amid the swirling mix of ebow and sweeping guitar, which on occasion becomes more strident, and there’s performance art using hand-held mirrors. The found-sound ambience is delicate and well balanced; there’s a pile of broken crockery for Ellen to enigmatically sift around to musical effect, along with a pile of screws on a tin tray and a buckety thing with a wire hanging out to hit with a stick (the bucket acting as an echo chamber). I’m sure it has a better name that ‘buckety stick and wire thing’, but as a whole it all conjures musical spells from a world of Magyk: an enthralling racket. One piece incorporates a satisfying scream from Ellen and some mild riffing, and heartbeat pulsing and drone looping makes another sound like the Mastermind theme after a bad trip. You’re not going to be whistling this stuff on your way home, but it’s quietly magnificent while it’s going on.
To see Jo Quail play a tiny room to less than 50 people is exhilarating, and I’m treasuring the fleeting opportunity. She should be playing to so many more people, who would easily be swept up by her otherworldly talents and dynamic performances, so this is just magical. Jo gets the seated portion of the audience to shuffle forwards on their bottoms to the edge of what would be called the stage, if it were a stage at all. I find a corner to stand in, with wall and bar for leaning, as sitting on the floor for any length of time would be tant amount to death.
Jo’s enthusiasm shines through and she says that she’s been looking forward to Gryphon gig more than any of the others on this tour, and gesturing to the eager audience she proclaims that “this is what music is all about!”
The opener slow-builds on layers of percussive strikes and bowed loops in a gradually evolving symphony. Her feet precisely clip the pedals to encourage the sounds to do her bidding. The concentration on her face and the exuberance of her playing are just sublime, eyes closed as the music inhabits her, compelling her to push it to the limits.
Rex Infractus was the first track on Jo’s first album, From the Sea, and here it is revisited as Rex, an exploration of words and emotions in music. This is indeed what music is about – supreme creativity with genuine emotion and the chops to make it look easy. Moving from her electric cello, Hidden Forest (from the Caldera album, written when Jo was pregnant) is played on an acoustic instrument dating from the 1820s. Now seated, eyes still closed, she breathes with the music, living it. There are a couple of new and as yet unnamed tracks, the first utilising pizzicato, with Jo acknowledging that she doesn’t really know how to finish it yet, chuckling to herself as it comes to a close. It’s just fascinating to watch her delivers these amazing pieces of music.
Jo notes that she has toured Australia eight times, but this is her first headline tour of the UK. This says a lot about the state of music in this country…
Gold builds with intensity and passion, foot stomping along with the rhythms as she plays every part on instrument, bridge to body to strings. The audience helpfully assist to move Jo’s stool to make space for Ellen Southern from DSCM to join in for an extraordinary duet, delivering a stunningly dynamic vocal with empathic accompaniment from Jo.
Mandrel Cantus, from Exsolve, sees her replicating the original guitar solo, and the encore (before which she wisely chooses not to attempt clambering over the seated audients to leave her hemmed in corner) has a provisional title of The Embrace, a collection of ideas in an odd tuning, and then to finish we get Forge, again from Exsolve.
What an extraordinary evening, and I can’t expect to see her playing to such small numbers the next time she tours. Jo is a complete treasure, sublime music running through her bones, and you’d be foolish to pass over a chance to experience her.
Jo Quail – Website | Facebook | Bandcamp
Dead Space Chamber Music – Facebook | Bandcamp