It’s not every gig where the band members turn to each other at the end and say “We did it!” But this is a bit of a landmark: it’s the first date on Stealing Sheep’s first full national tour.
Their sound is a genuine tonic, particularly if you’ve had it up to here with guitar-based indie rock. It’s pretty tricky to categorise, though. It’s a sort of melange of choral singing, jagged electro-pop and unpredictable rhythms. In some circles they’ve been called ‘folk’, most likely due to those strikingly ethereal, even haunting vocals, but that doesn’t quite nail it. Their ambitious, outlandish music has even been tagged ‘prog’, but if that’s a dirty word to you, fear not – their songs are bright, clear and tight. By way of illustration, few of their songs have titles longer than one word, two at a push. They are hitting minor chords and time signatures that other bands wouldn’t even dream of, but it’s all surprisingly accessible. Essentially they’re a fresh spin on the grand tradition of psychedelic Liverpool bands – which is to say, they sound odd and distinctive, and not quite like anything that you can put your finger on.
They have a strong sense of imagery, with their videos referencing avant-garde film-makers such as Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. On stage, they present a fittingly visual line-up, with Becky Hawley marshalling a bank of keyboards, Lucy Mercer wielding large drum beaters and Emily Lansley wrangling angular sounds out of guitars.
Though evidently highly gifted, they can’t quite replicate their recordings’ precision wallop live just yet, and there are a couple of technical hitches early on – but these are probably just teething problems, and besides, they cope with admirable good humour. In fact, they spend the whole gig grinning at each other like cats who have just found the deeds to a dairy. It’s remarkably infectious, and the audience seems happy to be drawn in and will them on.
The set is dominated by songs from the new album, though they open with Shut Eye, a curious, rousing favourite from their first album. They’re not short of pop nous – witness their recent single, Not Real‘s title track, or the forthcoming Deadlock – but they’re always ready to throw in weird, unexpected elements to make things more interesting, a bit like Roxy Music if they’d comprised of three Brian Enos; or The Ronettes if they’d had Phil Oakey as their svengali rather than Phil Spector.
Stealing Sheep’s enigmatic, elliptical nursery rhyme lyrics may not be their strongest point and, like anything with such an experimental heart, their more out-there songs don’t always come off. But when they do, which is impressively often, it’s special and spellbinding, as is the case with the loping, hypnotic Greed and the simultaneously beguiling and unsettling Evolve and Expand. The odd wobble aside, their performances are smart and spirited, even joyous.
The Not Real album has been winning Stealing Sheep lots of attention from the likes of BBC 6 Music, and rightly so. It manages to streamline their embryonic earlier sound without losing the eccentric qualities that make them so cherishable. With many live dates lined up over the next few months, they’ll surely smooth off some of the rougher edges on show tonight, but actually it’s to be hoped that they don’t lose their endearingly offbeat character entirely in the process. It’s not a flawless show, perhaps, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating, and more to the point it promises great things to come. Definitely a band to watch, then – in every sense.
By Andy Murray
What: Stealing Sheep
Where: Band on the Wall, Manchester
When: April 24, 2015 and touring
More info: www.stealingsheep.co.uk/