“We’re like the avant-garde Sonny And Cher,” smiles Tim Bowness as he joins iamthemorning for their first encore. Throughout a triumphant evening, he and the Russian duo’s singer Marjana Semkina have joined each other’s bands for guest spots: the unorthodox idea has led to a fluidity which has leavened the undoubted earnestness of the material. As Marjana quips, their songs are “mostly about death”, while Bowness’ have never been famous for their frivolity either. Yet the vividness of tonight’s sounds and the all-round enthusiasm for elegance has been fused into a feel-good factor. Both artists find beauty in darkness, light in reflection.
Tim Bowness opens, with a superb band featuring two highly physical drummers and a searing electric violin. Led by guitarist Michael Bearpark, they build a wall of melancholy with an astute ear for ebb and flow, as the singer croons selections from his now extensive catalogue like Time Travel In Texas, the rhythmic The Warm-Up Man Forever and the yearning Days Turn Into Years. The scale of the music is actually daunting: imagine seeing stadium-era Pink Floyd fronted by David Sylvian in a compact ballroom. Your brain takes a moment to assimilate the ambition; you readjust your heartbeat to its out-of-the-ordinary majesty.
After a brief interval, St Petersburg’s finest musical export iamthemorning take the stage. We’ve already seen Marjana, joining in on Tim’s set, so the surprise element of her appearing like a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, bright orange hair damp after rising from the riverbed, is spent. Now we can lose ourselves in their music, as she and consummate pianist Gleb Kolyadin are joined by a multi-national band featuring violin, cello and rhythm section. Their album Lighthouse has been championed by Prog this year, and hearing parts of this live emphasises its intelligent yet emotional blend of tricky, considered time signatures and flat-out soul-bearing angst.
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But they tease us with their earlier songs first. Marjana belies her Edvard Munch-approved image, proving a lively, jovial host as she tells us that raising a toast to human misery is entirely normal in Russia. She instigates handclaps, apologising because she’s aware we Brits don’t like audience participation, and climaxes a mood-breaking plug for the merchandise stall with, “Here’s another song about a dead girl”.
After another light-hearted intro, she deadpans, “This one’s about electroconvulsive therapy”. Moving into the dramatic denouement of Sleeping Pills, Libretto Horror and Chalk And Coal, the mood sits somewhere between near-gothic Weimar Republic cabaret and defiant Cossack-dancing in the face of despair (Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf were influences on the lyrics), with Marjana’s voice growing more impressive with each flourish.
There’s a standing ovation and a sense that something special’s been witnessed. Both acts tonight brought thunder and tenderness.