Harptallica plus Michael Lee

Venue : The Nag’s Head, High Wycombe
Date : Sunday 23 August 2009
Date of writing this review : 24 August 2009
I had spent the day at Hobble On The Cobbles in Aylesbury and I had two choices once that came to a close – I could pop down to the jam night at Chesham United Football Club and see a triumphant TR8R, following their earlier performance at Hobble, or I could go over to The Nag’s Head in High Wycombe to see Harptallica.  I would be seeing TR8R at the football club on Friday 28 August, so The Nag’s Head tonight, for another evening organised by the excellent Neil, of Alternator Promotions.  And tonight was another free night, and I am pleased to say it got the good turn out it deserved.
Support for the evening was Michael Lee, who was one of the acts I had missed at Hobble, so that turned out well.  As he said, this was his second gig of the day in his mini tour of Buckinghamshire – I wonder if he knew he was playing in the venue which launched the live act of one of his influences, Porcupine Tree.  If he did, he showed no nerves as a result.  He opened his acoustic set with a new song, Searching For The Truth, a rhythm loops kicks in and his acoustic guitar flows.  Smooth vocals come in, and grow bigger within the chorus.  There is a lovely melody running through the track from the guitar, and it mixes well with his soulful voice.  He moves on to an intricate part on the guitar, picking it out, and then strumming along as the vocals come back in.  It pauses as the vocals soar, then hits on again, with him picking out another guitar part before strumming to a close.  The big, fast strumming to open Long Term Vision provides both melody and rhythm, and as the vocals come in on top the track eases off and drifts along.  The track illustrates there is a good range to Michael’s voice, and at times it is full of emotion, leading into the tempo picking up and the track pushes on, his vocals really driving it.  Next up is Trust, with treble guitar sounds rolling off, flowing.  His vocals drift in before the song picks up a harder feel to it, sharp, but occasionally dropping softer as the guitar flows, before becoming more fervent with stronger vocals, then racing along.  It eases down into the guitar, then hits off, before easing once again as the guitar strums.  The vocals come back in and the track pushes on, heading into a sharp guitar part to close it.  Tired is for Laura, for letting him borrow her pedal to allow vocal harmonies tonight.  The guitar rolls in hard, then eases off as the vocals float in.  The sound grows, holds, then moves on full and warm.  It eases once again then builds itself back up as the guitar bites through, before easing again and flowing until the vocals come back in and really launches it on, and a guitar flourish brings it to the end.”I was not planning on doing this one, but Tom likes this one and it’s his pub”, and the guitar circles us into That Day, gentle strumming, melodic.  The vocals ease in and the track holds, sways, then starts to move off again, the guitar sound growing before easing off into a more melodic sound then drifting on, picking up a harder edge as it goes.  It eases down again, almost stops, then kicks off with a looping melody running underneath it, the guitar sound being picked out having a sound similar to The Police, then back to the strumming and his vocals come in and it pushes on with a great melody to the end.  Michael (it’s a clue !) produces vocal noises into a loop to provide rhythm, the guitar comes in with a funky sound, uptempo, bouncing along, “you can dance to this one if you want”, and as it races away and the vocals come in and the sound comes together we are treated to a version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, using the looping to great effect.  He follows this up with another cover version, this time of Stevie Wonder’s I Wish, bouncing along with wonderful vocals, again using the looping to create a full sound, and moving it on into a sharp end.  The final track of his set is also a cover version, but something very different, this time a cover of Extreme’s instrumental track, Midnight Express.  The rhythm comes from the looping again, and he produces a big guitar sound with an edge to it, almost an Asian theme crossing over with Spanish, some cymbal crashes coming through.  The guitar work is intricate, fast paced, moving into some expansive strumming to push it on, easing back as he strums out chords, before moving into more intricate parts again, producing an impressive sound, lots of fast moving finger work on the neck, really showing off his skill with the instrument, and he quite rightly receives huge applause at the end of his set.  He has a new album out at the moment and it is well worth a listen.The placed is packed for Harptallica – 2 girls, 2 harps, and their interpretation of Metallica songs – what’s not to like ?  As Neil commented as I walked in, “I thought I would see you here tonight”.  And we are not alone in being up for this – there is a serious sense of anticipation in the air !  I am going to approach this review in a slightly different manner to usual – normally I would run through the sound and feel of each track, but if you are reading this you will know the tracks back to front, plus I cannot begin to describe the sound of a harp in writing and do it justice (for all).  So what I will try to do on a track by track basis is outline the thoughts that came to my mind while listening to quite superb renditions from Ashley Lancz Toman and Patricia Kline.

Master Of Puppets
It is immediately clear that these are two very talented musicians, and what they are attempting to do both looks and sounds very intricate.  It must be mentioned that they do all the arrangements for the tracks they play.  They are both trying to play through the melodies, bring in the rhythm, bring the sounds from the two harps together, and then suddenly, as they are pushing out the first ‘Master’ part it does come together and it sounds stunning.  I later find out they have hardly slept since being in Holland the night before and it has taken them a short time on stage to get going (and they are having to use unfamiliar rented harps) – but now they have settled there is no holding back, and there is a wonderful treble part which is very pointed, and as they close the track the crowd erupts with applause.  This is their first ever show in the UK, so plaudits to Neil for arranging it, and I feel we are honoured to be here.

The Unforgiven
It is given a stacatto feel as they are picking out every note, but the sound is amazing, very loud, almost booming.  The melody has a stately feel, above the deep, rumbling bass notes.

This is one of their favourites to perform, and the combination between the two harps is working very well in building a sound and then leaving notes floating in the air while the melody moves on.  And it really is as much a visual feast as an aural one, watching how they play, especially so close up, seeing what it is they are doing to create the different sounds.

(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth
This is a solo piece from Ashley Lancz Toman and the sound is almost buzzing.  There are some seriously awesome hand movements, which become very aggressive at times.

The Call Of Ktulu
They are brilliant at creating sinister, dramatic sounds, and it really adds an extra edge.  Often the sound is more pointed, adding a tension.  And I notice during this track that they both often use the flat of their hand to strike the strings to produce a sound.

They are starting to branch out, and so they have also arranged some Black Sabbath tracks, and ask if we would mind if they play one of them.  It is no surprise when they receive a unanimous demand to go for it.  This had an interesting sound, which was almost oriental at times.

Fade To Black
To be honest, this one had such a lovely flow to it that I simply got wrapped up in the sound – absolutely brilliant.

To Live Is To Die
This is a new one for them which they have just finished arranging.  It has a very grand sound and then starts pulsing, becomes aggressive, sharp, the treble parts very pointed, and it moves on to develop a very beautiful sound.  And they do not know it, but behind them Michael Lee’s banner is starting to fall off the wall, and as they close the track it finally falls away.

Ashley thanks The Nag’s Head and Michael Lee, and the crowd are shouting back thanks to Harptallica, and she says “some of you will be able to tell which one it is”.  The very familiar sound is unmistakeable, and it works very well on their instruments, really catching the sound of the track as it rises, the drama of the step up, and the crowd cheer as they produce the intricate treble part, and as they bring it to a close the place erupts with applause, and as it becomes clear that is their last track there are huge calls for more.  They look pleasantly surprised, and very humble with it.  I think there would have been a riot if Ashley had not said, “I think an encore can be arranged”.

Enter Sandman
WOW.  The crowd clap along to a sound which has a very sinister feel, almost crawling along through shadows, the bass notes so full, a real undercurrent flowing through the track.  The chorus part is sharp, and creepy.  And the crowd erupt again as they end.  They have to play another.

For Whom The Bell Tolls
There is a big, sustained sound, becoming even more powerful where the track picks up, and they produce a wonderfully rolling sound at times, chiming out as they bring their set to a final end.  In the true sense of the word, it has been awesome.

It is worth mentioning here that they are known to Metallica, and clearly have had some impact with them because they merit a mention in the expert levels of Guitar Hero.  If you are a Metallica fan then I think you will have a great night out experiencing their show.  You only have a few opportunities in the UK now, and then they are off to continental Europe again.

You can catch them in Bristol tonight, Brighton on Wednesday, Swindon on Thursday, Dyfed on Friday, Pontypridd on Sunday, Wolverton (MK) on Bank Holiday Monday, and The Bull & Gate on the Kentish Town Road in London on 1 September.  Do not miss this opportunity.

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