As fringe music venues go, I’ve always liked The Old Queen’s Head. Very much in the shabby chic school of decorative thought, it manages to pull in the trendies while actually offering a decent space for live gigs. The peeling wallpaper and ‘vintage’ chandeliers are all present and correct but unlike its brethren in Camden and Shoreditch, you actually stand a chance of finding a seat. And what’s more, you can make to the bar and back without spilling your drink. Ok, I’ll say it, it’s civilised. But don’t let that put you off. The congenial atmosphere in no way detracts from the visceral fervour onstage.
All The Queen’s Ravens are a seven-piece folk band whose repertoire speaks of influences ranging from country and southern blues, to sultry jazz. Fronted by two female vocalists, the haunting harmonies point to roots in traditional English and Hispanic folk with lyrics that glance wryly at sex, death and the agonies and ecstasies of human impulse.
I last encountered them in the tiny back room of a concrete box (apparently a pub) and preceded by a Belgian indie-pop group for whom time had apparently stopped in 1995. They played for twenty minutes, hooked me in good and proper, then promptly vanished off the radar for four months. But having recently booted out their fiddle/banjo player and replaced him with a couple of kooky blondes on mandolin and violin, they’re now gigging again. And with a fistful of new songs, I am keen to see what an hour in the headline slot might entail.
I’m not disappointed. The two girls soar in and out of each other’s refrains with near instinctive skill. Elegant guitar is underpinned by rich double bass and punctuated by the delicate cadences of the fiddle and mandolin, driven on by the urgent rhythm of the drums. The result is full, fierce, and yet refined; a sound that is at once raw and polished. It’s utterly captivating.
The band begin on Moneypenny, ostensibly the perfect high energy opener. The line “So glad that you came/Tell me what’s your name again” forms an upbeat chorus but behind it lies the story of a woman’s struggle with her sexual voracity and the hitherto latent inadequacy of her conquests.
This, I understand, is characteristic of The Ravens. Laced with dark irony that borders on the subversive, the songs tell of obsession, addiction, seduction, and heartache, not to mention the fine lines trodden between them.
“This is a foot-stomper,” they announce before launching into Eden Project, a song about a heroin junkie. Meanwhile, Joe, an anti-love letter to a woman’s toyboy begins with a pagan-style English folk song about a “bonnie bonnie boy”, before breaking into an energetic bluegrass number confessing, “I’ve been hanging around the school gates / I appear to be losing my way”. It culminates with the frenzied chorus, “You’re too young you better run home to your mother,” before regaining its composure to finish the tale.
By the time we reach the finale, the audience are almost as worked up as the band. Valiente, a sultry Latin number sways us towards the close. With drumsticks abandoned in favour of the djembe hand drum, the band are ushered from the soulful guitar and vocal duet at the start into a quasi-flamenco riot, castanets now joining the fray as the pace picks up. Then the band cuts to silence, leaving the girls to gasp in orgasmic staccato, before the whole crew piles back in to the intoxicating rhythm.
No time for an encore – but this only adds to AtQR’s magic. Despite my cordial start to the evening, as I stumble out onto Essex Road, I’m a sweaty post-gig mess. But I’m excited, I’m restless, and I’m gasping for more.
All The Queen’s Ravens at The Old Queen’s Head, Islington. March 29 2011.