For the successful recording artist, a side project offers a creative breathing space, the chance to flex muscles otherwise constrained by the commercial demands of an established outfit.
While Vena Portae might be seen as an opportunity for Emily Barker, more famous for her work with The Red Clay Halo, to rest her impeccable country-folk credentials awhile and wear a moodier, alt-folk hat, that would be doing a disservice to fellow band members Dom Coyote (guitar and vocals), Ruben Engzell (bass and vocals) and Jesper Jonsson (drums and vocals), who are more than mere collaborators. Vena Portae are a bona fide unit, two years in the making, now riding the crest of their just-released, eponymous debut album. It’s a record that reeks of quality, and one suspects there are quite a few more hiding up their Anglo-Swedish sleeves.
Tonight sees the band winding up their first British tour at The Castle Hotel in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Less hotel, more iconic Northern pub, it was here in 1979 that DJ legend John Peel interviewed Ian Curtis of the great Joy Division. The live room, past a bar brimming with rowdy punters and down a narrow corridor, is cosy to say the least, a shoebox with a high, gable roof, giving it the feel of a tiny, Lakeland chapel.
First up on an instrument-clogged stage is folk singer Helen Chambers, whose wry tales of love and disadvantageous domestic arrangements are exquisite vignettes of Yorkshire life. Chambers’ confident guitar work and strong vocals were a delight, and her engagingly florid appearance at the end was perhaps less to do with the growing humidity of the compact surroundings, rather more to an artist who gave her all to a very well-received performance.
Enter Vena Portae (it’s Latin for the small vein carrying blood to the liver), kicking off with Before The Winter Came, the second track from their album. Fans of Barker will know that exceptional levels of musicianship and compositional craft come as standard. Vena Portae are no exception. The song is a lovely, laid-back slice of wistfulness, bringing gorgeous harmonies and a throbbing harmonica to the ears of the appreciative throng. Foal is an allegory, its lame horse a visceral device that scopes the pain of difficult choices. It ought to be depressing, but its upbeat pace and Barker’s excellent banjo make it a hummable affair. Turning Key is darker, a mysterious, science-fiction influenced song with a haunting refrain which sees Coyote on lead vocal, while Flames & Fury, an ode to the passion and recklessness of love, is defined by the tranquillity of Coyote’s guitar solo, a metaphorical break in a lovers’ argument.
A mid-set band/audience chat about Manchester writers throws up an interesting question. “Whatever happened to Mog?” Barker asks. The audience turn to one another. “Who is Mog?” we say, faces etched with puzzlement. I thought Mog was a cat in a children’s story. A later Facebook post on the Vena Portae page sets me on a trail. “Mog” is the nickname of Ian Morris, bassist in legendary Manchester band The Smirks (what a great name), now a DJ on Mancunian community station All FM. I thought I knew a fair bit about Manchester bands: thanks, Emily Barker, for the shame.
Being a debut album tour, it’s no surprise that the set is dominated by tracks from Vena Portae, though a couple of new, rockier compositions, What We Do Matters and No Enemies, make their presence known, with Coyote again on vocals. The Mapless Sea is another masterclass in harmony, ending with a crescendo of Jonsson’s class drumming. Though Barker takes the lead on most tracks, Vena Portae is a democratic affair, and the moving, melancholic All Will Be Well gives the wispish vocals of Ruben Engzell a deserved airing.
The band announce the radio-friendly, Parton-esque country-pop of their recent single Summer Kills as their last number, a song remixed by Peter Morén of Peter, Bjorn and John fame, friend and collaborator of fellow Swede, Engzel. Not surprising, then, that the choice of encore is a vibrant, spine-tingling rendition of the brilliant Young Folks, which sadly brings Vena Portae’s intimate set – and tour – to a close.
Main image: Johan Bergmark
Vena Portae is out now in all formats on Humble Soul Records. Vänner, a remix album of Vena Portae, is available to download only. For more information visit www.venaportae.net.
Helen Chambers’ album, Penny Arcade, is out now. For more information visit helenchambersmusic.com.