Live Music + Gig Reviews

Ella Guru @ Water Rats, London

4 August 2004

Some bands are so delicate that a too-loudly crunched crisp can throw their entire rhythm off kilter. Ella Guru – polite, feint and softly beautiful – play their instruments as though made from spun glass. It’s a bewitching experience, but it’s not for those with short attention spans. Introduced tonight by the humble and slightly embarrassed request that people keep the noise down, Ella Guru is not so much a band that screams “ROCK AND ROLL!” as whispers “shall we share some magic?

Yes, Ella Guru reward patience. They encourage the lost art of listening. They lure you inside their songs, rather than ask you to jump on top of them. Shuffling onstage in a manner confirming that they are the antithesis of Robbie Williams, the band take up their places on a compact and sweaty stage in the intimate Water Rats. They display endearingly human frailties such as the tendency to trip over chairs, and male pattern baldness. Seeing them, you realise that theirs is a beauty that flowers from the mundane. This ain’t glitterball showbiz.

Unlike fellow Liverpudlians The Coral and The Zutons, Ella Guru are not a wacky bunch. Looking like “serious musicians” with pullovers and calloused fingers, they form a cosy eight-piece. They have the numbers to create a deafening wall of sound, but their music is closer to the pared down, rich, sultry Americana of Lambchop‘s Nixon, or the slower moments on Sparklehorse‘s It’s a Wonderful Life. With an array of instruments from double bass to pedal steel, they create lush and warm soundscapes that conjure up Nashville, Liverpool and the Moon.

What audience interaction there is from lead John Yates is often mumbled in a thick Liverpudlian burr, allowing only a tight semi-circle of people at the front to understand what on earth he’s on about. He looks both in love with his music, but slightly uneasy about having to share it with people.

In fact, so low-key are Yates’ tender vocals that he occasionally sounds about as passionate as Belle And Sebastian‘s Stuart Murdoch singing beneath a veil of doilies. At its best though, his voice enchants and lingers like a more timid Nick Drake. It is matched perfectly to the gorgeous instrumentation in the background.

Ella Guru reach transcendental levels when they bring in the sweet, crystal clear voice of Kate Walsh. Her eggshell vocals are as mesmerising as Beth Gibbons, but as dainty as a schoolgirl singing to her grandma. Together, Walsh and Yates create wonderful harmonies that silence even the burbling natterers at the back of the room. On a Boat, from their superb debut EP 3 Songs From Liverpool, draws gasps and cheers from the rapt crowd.

Augustus Golden floats out beyond the sweatbox of the venue. They even muster some catchy tunes that hint at the possibility of, gasp, dancing. Strugglin Horse In Hollywood, with its lilting, jangling chorus, makes for a rousing encore. You even start to understand what Yates meant when, earlier in the set, he crooned: “This Is My Rock And Roll”.

Ella Guru will not be to everyone’s tastes. They are slightly awkward, slow, intense and ask for the audience to make a pact of silence. “Sometimes,” says Yates, “when we’re playing, I close my eyes and lose myself to the sound of everyone around me. Then I open them and it feels really weird to be back in the real world.” With Ella Guru you can escape that real world for a few blissful moments. Just try not to cough, sneeze or shuffle too loudly.

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More on Ella Guru
Ella Guru – The First Album
Ella Guru @ Water Rats, London