Who would have thought that six months ago travelling to a Ward Thomas concert would take a matter of seconds. Even if their Unfiltered tour had gone ahead back in April/May, no one would have believed it possible to be able to attend without leaving your own home. Yet in the age of social distancing and through the wonders of technology, I was able to make a brew in my own kitchen and then take it to my front row seat at the Theatre Royal Newmarket without even stepping outside the door of my North Wales home. Now that is revolutionary.
Of course, the ability to watch livestreamed performances has been around for a number of years now. Schemes like National Theatre Live and programmes like Live at the Apollo are well-established, while recordings of live concert gigs have been around for years. But the ability to experiment with these art-forms when the live audience is absent does not seem to have been undertaken in any significant way yet. Laura Marling is perhaps the best known musician to have done so, with her Union Chapel shows back in June. In this way, accessing Ward Thomas’ livestream concert, to coincide with the release of their new album Invitation, felt new and exciting. Watching it, I couldn’t help but admire their vision and ingenuity.
After a pre-recorded set from Devon Dawson all the way from Nashville, in which the rising country star performed three songs from what looked like a backstreet Opry, accompanied by Miss Piggy on piano and Yogi Bear on bass, Ward Thomas appeared onscreen in front of the theatre entrance. They walked through its doors and, via a faded shot, into the auditorium, where their three-piece band struck up the soft sound of ‘Sweet Time’. The lightness of the ukulele playing, alongside the deftness of touch on guitar and keyboard, blended with the angelic harmonies of Catherine and Lizzy to define the whole atmosphere of the evening. Even with the pop-inflected notes on ‘Don’t Be a Stranger’ and the light injection of funk in ‘Open Your Mind’ that followed, there was still an intimate feel to their performance which belied the cavernous belly of the auditorium.
It took some getting used to, but their venture into the Royal Box early on for a trio of songs, with Lizzy on keyboard and Catherine perched on the balcony with her guitar, was an inspired one. With the cameras angled voyeuristically to peer into this confined space, complete with lamp and oak cabinet, it felt like looking into their living room and being given privileged access to a jamming session. The resultant songs, including ‘Cartwheels’ and ‘Hold Space’, were clearly too well-rehearsed to have been off-the-cuff of course, but it was a nice touch that helped establish a more comfortable relationship between them and the distant viewers.
Their use of space got more bold and imaginative as the set went on. From the constraints of the royal box, the camera spiralled up into the gallery to find them singing opposite one another with their keyboard player in between. ‘Where the Sky is’ was an apt choice for their place up in the gods, with their harmonic voices helping to maintain a close bond with the audience despite the empty seats threatening to engulf them in this larger space. ‘One More Goodbye’ found them slightly losing this connection as they concentrated their performance out to the front of the room rather than looking down the lens of the cameras that perched either side of them. Their choreographed transition back down to the stage was also disjointed enough for me to consider whether they had perhaps been too ambitious in their desire to utilise the many parts of the building. It helped that they returned to the stage for ‘Guilty Flowers’ and ‘I Believe in You’ therefore, in order to restore them and us to a more familiar experience before the interval.
And it was not just any interval. This was a bar-based chat with Radio 1’s Shiona McCallum. It was slightly awkward and obviously staged but it was a nice touch that added to the general sense of intrigue and surprise of the evening. Part-National Theatre Live, with its pre-performance interviews and interval extras, part-Saturday Night Takeaway, with its backstage insight and eavesdropping feel, this segment really showcased the potential of the livestream experience and the possibilities of this infant art-form.
The second-half was much more in keeping with a standard show as Ward Thomas remained on the main stage throughout. They rattled through a host of songs, including ‘No Filter’, ‘Someday’ and ‘Wait Up’, with the same gusto as they would in front of a packed house. After each song, the lights would dim and then lift again a few moments later. There was nothing ground-breaking or indeed cinematic about this part of the set, which was a shame, given the creativity of the first-half. However, there was certainly nothing disappointing about the listening experience. In fact, their version of Jimi Hendrix’ ‘Purple Rain’ was superb. The stripped-back nature of their set allowed the lyrics to shine through as I have never heard them before. It was the same with Ward Thomas’ own ‘Push for the Stride’, where the instrumentation is usually more memorable than the words. ‘Carry You Home’ brought the music back into focus for an accomplished finale before Catherine and Lizzy sat at the edge of the stage to round off the broadcast with the acapella song ‘Dear Me’. It was the perfect ending, reflecting the sweet sound of the show’s opening to bring the whole thing full circle.
Ward Thomas’ livestream concert may have been a little frayed around the edges but its vision was bold and imaginative and was, in the main, wholly realised. They did not keep it simple, but instead took a risk and aimed high, choosing a venue whose size could have quite easily overwhelmed them. Instead, they made use of its space, showing creativity and innovation that, though dissipating as the show went on, nevertheless saw them occupying its nooks and crannies in an attempt not only to entertain their virtual audience aurally but visually too. It may not have always paid off but, considering the new environment and need to experiment with this new form of musical experience, they may have just created a blueprint for other artists to follow. The applause may have been non-existent inside the Theatre Royal. But Ward Thomas can rest assured that it was echoing in the homes of their fans who tuned in to witness this unique event.
Review written by Gareth Williams