The first time I saw The Staves was at the Manchester Arena, a huge 21,000-person venue with a reputation for putting on bands more like Radiohead than three sisters armed with one ukulele and a guitar. That performance in 2012, as support for Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver, filled the arena with a type of music that I certainly had never heard before. Beautifully harmonised, spine-tinglingly honest, I couldn’t not look them up after the main act and find out who these girls were.
Fast-forward three years and they were back in Edinburgh for a second visit in as many years to Queen’s Hall. Despite the annoyance of a group of women sat directly behind me who would not stop chatting for the full hour and a half’s set, The Staves astounded once again. Already confident in their role as bill-toppers, their most recent collaboration has allowed them to flourish into much more rounded and expressive musicians.
Their new album, If I Was, due to be released in March, has been produced by the aforementioned Vernon. Recorded in his famous Wisconsin cabin of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, the singles released so far from If I Was show a depth from The Staves that many have argued has been missing.
Kicking off the show with the first and main single from the new album, “Blood I Bled”, an expansive and much ‘bigger’ song than many will have expected, caused what can only be described as quite a restless audience to immediately pay attention. The restlessness was no doubt partly the fault of the dour and sombre support act, Flo Morrissey, whose music, despite a fantastic voice, could be so easily improved by telling her to stop over-complicating everything.
Despite this, the sisters’ three-way harmonies immediately transfixed the audience with the next two songs from the new album, “Horizons” and “Open”, both of which showed evidence of a growth in their songwriting, showing off a far more honest sound.
Interspersing their new tracks with old favourites, a problem that they admitted had left them “stuck in the rehearsal room for weeks trying to figure out how to play them”, the consistently gorgeous and personal favourite “Mexico” was sandwiched in as a quick reprieve from the new material.
While that suggests their new tracks are not as good as their previous, it simply is not fair nor is it true.
While long-time Staves fans will be surprised by the new direction of the band, with Vernon’s influence adding far more layers than were ever on their debut album Dead & Born & Grown, it is a massive step forward for the band. The consecutive performances of “Steady”, “Black and White”, and “Let Me Down” still brought about what The Staves are about despite the lack of a ukulele and constant harmony.
Another quick jaunt back to their first album followed with the excellent “Pay Us No Mind”, followed by another debut song, the simple but perfectly layered “Make It Holy”.
After another quick trip backwards to as close a folk song gets to being anthemic with “Eagle Song”, the now mostly quiet and still audience were blown away by their performance of “Damn It All” in which their voices managed to fill the venue on their own just as impressively as they did with full instrumentation.
Finishing the main set with “Teeth White” and “White Winter Trees”, where they somehow managed to successfully juxtapose pure country with simple and understated folk, The Staves left to rapturous applause.
The encore made sure not to disappoint old fans, with a stunning rendition of the beautiful “Facing West” followed by the haunting harmonies of “Wisely and Slow”.
It’s too easy to say that The Staves have become something of a phenomenon, because that is simply not true. The band, totally at ease throughout the performance with the audience, cracking jokes at every opportunity, have been a phenomenon for a while, and their potential is only limited by a lack of confidence in a genre that is too often written off as clichéd and overdone. It would not be a surprise if the latest release became one of the albums of the year, and with it should come an exposure that the band has long deserved.