Live review

Mammal Hands at Norwich Arts Centre

Mammal Hands

(Norwich Arts Centre. 3 May 2023. Review by John Arnett)


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Mammal Hands. Photo credit: Aspa Palamidas

This concert represented a triumphant and celebratory return to home turf for Norwich trio Mammal Hands, showcasing their sixth and latest album“Gift from the Trees” (Gondwana, reviewed HERE). The setting was the suitably spiritual and atmospheric converted church that is Norwich Arts Centre (so dark that I was dismayed to find, after the event, that my notes were all but illegible). Remaining May dates are a sure indication of their standing : The Acropolis Museum in Athens, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and then back to Germany, where they have already been touring.

Facing eachother at opposite sides of the stage were Nick Smart on grand piano and keyboard, and drummer/tabla player Jesse Barrett, with Jordan Smart, brother of Nick, in the centre, on a variety of saxophones, sometimes playing one handed so as to conduct and keep time with the other one. Often you would hear a bass part only to realise it was actually coming from the left hand of the pianist, or indeed the bass drum. At times throughout, drummer Jesse Barrett would play the tabla with one hand and drums/assorted percussion with the other (and feet). The sheer variety of sound, texture and volume that this trio are able to generate was just one remarkable feature of a hugely enjoyable and memorable show.

Another distinctive aspect of the band’s sound world is the way in which drama and excitement are created through the repetition and variation of interweaving melodic and rhythmic lines. There are no solos as such and not much in the way of chordal harmony in the conventional sense – as explained on the band’s website, it is an approach that “favours the creation of a powerful group dynamic, over individual solos”. This was very much in evidence on new album tracks “Kernel , “Nightingale” and the particularly beautiful “Deep within Mountains” early on in the set.

“Riser” amply demonstrated the band’s ability to set up a propulsive, spacious groove and then follow it through a whole series of variations from sparse and restrained to controlled chaos and volcano-like crescendo. Endings were highly dramatic and razor sharp throughout, eliciting roars of approval from the audience. The main set finished with “The Spinner”, the opening track on the new album, with its rapid, shifting solo piano figure underpinning, in total contrast, the slow, yearning and intertwining soprano sax theme, The band seemed more than happy to oblige with an encore – described as “an old one – Boreal Forest”, clearly a favourite with band and audience. They had no sooner finished playing than all three were manning the merchandise stall, and doing a very brisk and thoroughly deserved trade.

Link: Mammal Hands website

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