THE COURTESANS at the New Helfire Club

Originally posted on

The night before they (Courtesans) had been to Hull and now they were back in Glasgow – I made my way across the Scottish Central Belt after being in the TD1 studio at Galashiels; disappointed that I hadn’t been able to catch their live acoustic set in the New Hellfire Club that afternoon but certainly looking forward to another great night’s music in the Stereo Cafe Bar.

In my rush to head off I had mistakenly noted Renfield Street and entered that into my SatNav – only to discover after walking the length of that street that the venue was in fact in Renfield Lane! I tried a few paper shops but nobody could (or would) tell me where Renfield Lane was but eventually a guy in a converted Police Box pointed me in the right direction and I arrived shortly after Athena’s Army had started playing. I was pleased to note an all-female band on stage delivering a great-sounding, competent and engaging set, just a shame that I had missed the start but I’m sure there will be other opportunities for me to catch up with them. I did get a chance to speak to a couple of band members later in the evening and was impressed by their enthusiasm about their music – although I imagine that they probably wouldn’t have bothered playing if they weren’t committed to what they do (note to self – avoid using sport reporting cliches such as “they’re going into the next game determined to win”, or “if they’d scored more goals it would have been a different result”!)

I also caught up with Splintered Halo as they were preparing for their set, Evelyn was wearing a mask at that time and as Athena’s Army continued to play it was a wee bit difficult making out what she/they were saying!
After a quick change-over Splintered Halo were on stage; as I expected the ‘anonymous’ band members were all wearing featureless white masks. During the break I had been speaking to an audience member about her act featuring fake blood so it seemed quite appropriate that Splintered Halo began with ‘Bloodshed In Wonderland’! Evelyn began wearing a masquerade mask, not the one she had been wearing earlier, and immediately her imposing and striking presence dominated the stage – that is not to suggest that she relies totally on the visual aspect of her performance as her vocal skills are considerable and deserve to stand entirely on their own merit – melodic, almost sweet at times, she does at times morph into a powerful deep and powerful dissonant screaming style – very satisfying to my ears. After a couple of numbers, during ‘Shadow’, Evelyn dispensed with her mask although her long dark her often continued to mask her face. She later remarked about the problems associated with that as her hair would get into her mouth as she sung. Despite the similarity of the apparently anonymous masks worn by the other band members I found myself thinking that they each had managed to inject their own distinct personalities into their performances – mainly as a result of their different postures and mannerisms. I thoroughly enjoyed their all too brief set, although I was reminded as to why I am unlikely to ever play their music during my lunchtime shows, some lyrics also rule out evening show playlists too as a radio edit would completely spoil the whole thrust. Other tracks included (if I picked up correctly) ‘Butcher’ and ‘Easier To Die’. I was extremely impressed by the venue’s sound quality; in fact by the whole ambience too.
Having met The Courtesans on a number of occasions before, it almost felt like a family reunion when meeting Agnes and Vicki as I arrived, and then Saffire and Sinead as they mingled with the audience during Splintered Halo’s set, along with Howard. The audience numbers grew as the Courtesans’ appearance approached, presumably many had been in the bar upstairs or outside enjoying some fresh Glasgow night air, I estimated probably around 100 were gathered when first Vicki, then Agnes and Saffire made their way onto the stage accompanied by extremely atmospheric sounds that became deeper and deeper bass tones – then Sinead joined them there; she adopted her signature ‘back to audience’ pose and Agnes took control of the very low bass tones as I stood right in front of the left hand front of stage speaker stack – I found myself recalling Hawkwind who had allegedly once experimented with finding the ‘ultimate’ bass tone that would induce vomiting in the audience! Thankfully that tone was not attained on the night – instead the tones and notes became the introduction to ‘Liberate’. Despite being very impressed by many of the band’s songs, I tend to view this one as summing up their whole ethos – it seems to me that every aspect of their performances is entirely down to what they wish to do – they have ‘liberated’ themselves from any major managerial control regarding image, and present themselves exactly as they wish, I believe that this is one of the things that really appeals to me about them (in addition to the brilliant music). I have experienced a range of variations in their stage presence, tonight they were almost entirely dressed in black, Agnes wearing a back lace body stocking, Sinead an inspired black combination that I won’t even begin to attempt to describe (principally because I don’t feel that I have the fashion knowledge to be able to do it justice, at first I thought she was wearing shorts but it was something far more complex than that), Saffire and Vicki also favoured black and Vicki’s previously bright red hair was now a much darker blue hue which also augmented the mood. Agnes and Vicki’s severe knee-length black leather boots seemed absolutely in tune with the lyrics from ‘Venus In Furs’, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather” – although as far as that song is concerned I will probably always be reminded of some of the other lyrics – around 15 miles into the Brighton Marathon their track played on my i-pod – all I remember from then is, “I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years”!
The Courtesans’ set progressed and included a number of new tracks – from previous experiences it seemed very clear to me that this band continues to hone their considerable skills and simply get better and better. Agnes’ bass provides a rock solid foundation for the band and marries seamlessly with Vicki’s relentlessly and insistent powerful drumming; it seems almost impossible to believe that such engaging, strong gut-wrenching vocals can emanate from such a petite figure as Sinead, but they do, and her power is completely inescapable; finally there is Saffire, a diminutive figure who provides a persistent, extremely skillful and engaging guitar accompaniment to the rest of the band’s contributions, her fingers dancing magically along her fretboard.
Following on from the opening number The Courtesans progressed through a set list as follows: Indigo / Dirty Killer / Out Of Spite / Swallow / Nowhere / Venus In Furs / Lullaby / Scream / Mesmerise / Genius. I certainly have absolutely nothing against the familiar tracks from the ‘1917’ album but must say that I was particularly impressed by new songs – ‘Nowhere’ which I had been impressed with previously and ‘Out Of Spite’ with the incredibly atmospheric vocals/calls by Saffire and absolutely stunning ‘tribal’ drumming by Vicki.
It may be a long way to travel from Scottish Borders to Glasgow in the west coast, but when the quality of music and friendship is as good as this was, it makes it all worthwhile. Having said that I did have a ‘moment’ when I returned to discover that my ‘secure’ car park was so secure that it was closed and I couldn’t get in! After a brief time when I thought that I might have to check into a hotel for the night, a very friendly security guard eventually helped me to gain access and was able to set off along the M8 heading east. All that remains now is to hope that the the time when I found myself more or less forced to drive along a bus/taxi only street wasn’t recorded for posterity by CCTV – I suppose I’ll just have to wait a couple of weeks to see if the post delivers a ‘penalty charge notice’.
The Courtesans genuinely seem to enjoy their trips to Scotland; I feel privileged to have been able to share a small portion of these visits with them and wish them all the best for the rest of their time north of the border this time round.

Words: Donald Strachan