Gig review: Alison Cotton at Rise@Bluebird, York

The North East singer and viola player’s folk music keeps the extraordinary stories of ordinary people alive.
Alison Cotton. Picture: Al OverdriveAlison Cotton. Picture: Al Overdrive
Alison Cotton. Picture: Al Overdrive

First the venue – it’s great to see a new space for live music pop up off the beaten track of York city centre and even better to see it put to use for gigs that are also a bit out of the ordinary.

The Bluebird Bakery in Acomb has been a hit in its daytime guise, but is branching out as an intimate evening venue under the name Rise@Bluebird and tonight sees them team up with established promoters Please Please You.

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Thinking outside the box seems to have paid off. Atmospherically lit in blue and with the mood set by local support act Pascallion’s ambient Slowdive-meets-Nick Drake guitar work, the room is full of dedicated music fans ready to spend an evening absorbed in the haunting sound world of Alison Cotton.

The north-eastern singer and viola player bridges the gap between the folk and modern classical worlds, using reverb and loopers to build her soundscapes, ably abetted by Chloe Herington on harmonium drones and a range of instruments and percussion.

Her music found a wider audience with the excellent album The Portrait You Painted Of Me in 2022 – represented later in tonight’s set by the spectral ballad Violet May.

But this evening is focused on her last work Engelchen, inspired by the real-life story of Sunderland-born opera-loving sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who used their musical connections to help Jewish people escape Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

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Opener We Were Smuggling People’s Lives is a wordless epic of mesmerising drone and ominous sound effects, which seems to suspend time, followed by the title track sung almost unaccompanied (and reprised at the end of the set with different lyrics telling stories of today’s refugees).

The drone-heavy instrumentals are kindred to the bleak Pennine soundscapes of Richard Skelton or even the avant-garde darkness that Nico and John Cale invoked on The Marble Index – but at its beating heart Alison Cotton’s music is folk music that is all about keeping the extraordinary stories of ordinary people alive.

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