My first encounter with The Staves was in the most mundane of places: a lift. It was a couple of years ago and they were playing downstairs in the venue where I work, and I remember being pretty gutted that I was working that Saturday night and couldn’t go and see them. Anyway, I’d mostly forgotten that they were playing by the time I was actually on shift. I got in the lift with my stack of glass trays and as the lift stopped at the next floor, three young women stepped in. I recall being in awe of their beautiful hair, dresses and denim and I knew instantly that they must be The Staves – they seemed even cooler in real life. I had a burning urge to blurt out I love your music but instead I stared down at my crates of dirty glasses, listening to them chat casually about where they were going to go for dinner that night. Rock and roll, huh?
Well last night I got to see them live (properly). When they played a couple of years ago, I got to nip downstairs for a quick look once service had quietened down. Instantly I was hooked by their soaring harmonies, and it was pretty rubbish having to drag myself back upstairs to work. With a full set, the spell never breaks. A venue like The Old Fruitmarket seems perfect for them, with just the right amount of nostalgic quaintness mixed in with a kind of gritty city cool: colourful fairy lights but also decent spirits behind the bar, a balcony which you can watch the stage from. They had support from Gabriel Rios who played this sort of expressive, beat-heavy folk music. Each song seemed to tell a story, and Rios himself was very comfortable chatting away between sets about Scotland’s breathtaking scenery and the even more breathtaking brownie he had sampled nearby before the show. I should add that the beats were made on a gorgeous big double bass; you know, the kind of fist-tapping thwack that echoes beautifully, syncopating with sweet strings to have you hooked. Anyway, it was a really interesting dynamic, with neat guitar playing and the strings and the rocky/hiphoppy/folky vocals. Yeah, something like that.
The Staves themselves arrived onstage not long after. Up amongst the blue plumes of smoke, they seem so ethereal, their voices suddenly soaring through the silent air, shimmering drum rolls and percussion accompanying but only after a while, like a rain shower after the first burst of sunlight. You can’t help but think of all sorts of mythical sisters: those of the tv show Charmed, for one. Especially when they do that thing where they gather round the mic and sing all these amazing, breathtaking harmonies which even the adoring crowd refuses to interrupt (till all the whooping cheers afterwards). They played lots of familiar songs, with key tracks from the new album, If I Was, like ‘Black and White’ and ‘Blood I Bled’ mixed in with shorter songs, samples of harmonies and snatches of tracks the audience hasn’t heard before. In-between songs, they lit up the stage with bits of sibling banter, telling us about how as kids they bonded together as a “triad/tripod/tricycle” and shut out their parents by developing a dialect borrowed from The Simpsons, Clueless and various other random films and tv shows. While one of them wistfully dedicates the next song to their parents, “wherever you may be”, another retorts “I’m pretty sure they’ll be in Watford right now” – cue giggles and mock gazing out over the ocean of dry iced audience. There are a lot of giggles and chat and you can tell they’ve really grown relaxed with their stage presence, and it really draws the audience in too. Just the right balance between ethereal and down-to-earth politeness, with that very English way of complimenting everything – the crowd, venue, support act – whenever they can: “This venue is fucking amazing”.
It all flows together perfectly, and the enchanting quality of their music comes through most, perhaps, on the handful of sweeter, more pared-down tracks they played from their debut album, Dead & Born & Grown. You get that sense of their pure, raw talent on more stripped-back tracks like ‘Eagle Song’, which has haunting sort of folky lyrics and there’s a sense of nostalgia to it: Oh, to be lost, / Oh, to be wasting my time. There’s also a feeling of deep history and time – Of old battles lost, battles won – and then the hopeful kick: Call me in the morning I’ll be alright. It’s a comforting song; one of my favourites. The new tracks have a bolder edge, but they have kept earlier material fresh with a more upbeat version of the lovely ‘Mexico’ from Dead & Born & Grown. It all just sounds amazing: clear, vivid, strong and tight. You can tell they are really great musicians, experimenting with loops and percussion and again firing out those haunting harmonies. They even threw in a cover of Bombay Bicycle Club’s ‘Feel’, which was really cool and successfully reworked the poppy Bollywood mashup feel of the original using their signature strings, sparkling guitar and those crystal clear, melodic voices.
There’s something I recall Conor Oberst saying about First Aid Kit in an interview/some video online, commenting on how they have this mystical sisterly quality about them that carries through in their voices. You really feel that too with The Staves. They have this lovely innocence in their earlier songs, which have a deep folkiness, a softer kind of choral vibe (a bit like Fleet Foxes) which is steeped in landscape (‘Winter Trees’ will forever remind me of one of my first winters at university, wandering around Kelvingrove in the crunching snow). Their cover of ‘Silver Dagger’ (unfortunately it wasn’t played last night) is just as lovely as Fleet Foxes’ and perhaps a fitting tribute to older folk legends: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, for one example. The new album is certainly edgier and perhaps more fun (rock’n’roll?), but also has its dark, lonesome moments (fittingly, it was produced by Bon Iver), approaching more bitter subjects like relationships (Suffer me as I suffer you, ‘Blood I Bled’) and heartache (‘Don’t You Call Me Anymore’, which incidentally, they made a good joke saying that it was a song about cold callers). They play with silence and soft, lush melodies which build through rising harmonies, and not only is this a dream to listen to on CD (taking you back to the sleepy world of a Bon Iver album) but also a real kick live. All in all, The Staves at the Old Fruitmarket Glasgow was a gorgeous gig, the with an encore where they played new track (with lots of good hearty mmmmming) ‘Tired as Fuck’ and then a grittier version of ‘Teeth White’, where already you can feel their growing sense of rock’n’roll excess…And I wanna know / When I can start taking it slow / Cause I’ve had enough. Keep it coming!