Review: The Ashatones’ Summer Set @ Clothworkers’ Centenary Hall
June 14, 2015
[Images courtesy of The Ashatones]
In this contemporary environ of Pitch Perfect 2s and nostalgia-centric Instagram filters, it wouldn’t be a far stretch of the imagination to describe the barbershop quartet as moderately vogueish; the concept and the songs attached to it embody a ‘past’, a certain rose-tinting of simpler times where trouser braces and Brylcreemed hair didn’t also infer a lumberjack beard and manbun, where things were simpler in both design and result. Meanwhile, the successes of the a capella blockbuster have brought to the fore an entirely separate appreciation for a much-ignored niche of musical expression. This is not to suggest that Ashley Jacobs, Sam McCagherty, Harry Style and Alex Weston – the multi-talented foursome that comprise barbershop quartet The Ashatones – found their collective voice in following Anna Kendrick’s fictional path to glory, but rather to set the scene in which their Summer Set, performed at the Clothworkers’ Centenary Hall on the afternoon of the 6th June, inevitably dwells.
The Clothworkers’ Centenary Hall itself harks back in a manner, all gilt pattern reliefs, lime pastels and stained glass – albeit offset by the simultaneous presence of fold-away fabric seating and halogen lights. These were easily forgotten, however, with the show’s beginning. A flustered, book-holding Josh Ling enters the stage, keen to follow step-by-step ‘How to Start a Barbershop Quartet’. What ensues might have been lifted straight from the London Palladium, as The Ashatones enter to rapturous applause, and shakily follow the steps with Ling to uproarious laughter. The sketch soon over, and a dejected Ling relegated to audience member by McCagherty, the show’s main event began in earnest. A hilarious arrangement of ‘When I See An Elephant Fly’ from Dumbo demonstrated straight away the stage prowess of the quartet, all masters of comic timing, physical choreography and vocal manipulation in their own right. The following arrangement of The Zutons’ ‘Valerie’ saw harmonies with the propensity to cause chills, and some spectacular moments of pure croon. Their set, divided by a brief interval, was a smorgasbord of new and old, which saw a Frozen medley follow ‘Earth Angel’, hymns follow The Simpsons’ ‘Baby On Board’, and a breathtaking sprint through the 70s from Jackson 5 to Stevie Wonder. Friends, a capella contemporaries and co-conspirators The Songsmiths guested for two songs in the second act, an unwarranted but nonetheless welcome reprieve from The Ashatones as the larger group performed one of the show’s highlights: an impressive, soulful arrangement of Rusted Root’s ‘Send Me On My Way’ which received a stunned silence before applause.
The second act was brought to life by a positively virtuosic change of pace from the vocally-dominated first, as Weston and Jacobs engaged in a game of musical one-upmanship with Style and McCagherty, the former of each sharing a grand piano and the latter of each trading blows via the violin. This was another of the show’s highlights, as each of the quartet demonstrated the sheer breadth and depth of their musical abilities – again jumping between sincerity and comedy with preternatural aplomb, before finishing with a flourish and enlisting a maligned Ling to remove their instruments from the stage. The evening’s only low point seemed to be their choice to perform a hymn shortly into the second act, a performance which hindered the evening’s natural flow and energy with an unexpected lull. However the quartet managed the incredibly difficult job of closing an evening so varied in tone, in ending both on a poignant and a humourous note. Their last declared arrangement was a heartrending version of West Side Story’s ‘Somewhere’, the chorus to which inspired a lump to the throat. The song perfectly tied up the evening’s more serious moments, where the comedic moments received their send-off in an unannounced, unexpected break from farewells into the immensely funny ‘Enormous Penis’ by Da Vinci’s Notebook.
The Ashatones’ vaudevillian brand of variety entertainment scratched a very particular itch, both bringing to the present immaculate nodes of musical history and rendering the contemporary in flattering shades of the past. Their attention to detail from arrangement to choreography is commendable, and their ability to hold an audience for so long with just their voices and their charm speaks volumes. They are undeniably masters of their craft; while it is true their craft lends itself more to weddings and bar mitzvahs in recent times, this reviewer sees no reason for it to be unduly relegated to “the function”. Their craft is most certainly a craft, and if the current bent of society has demonstrated anything, it’s that The Ashatones would certainly be at home on the contemporary stage, as a welcome and vogueish reminder of a simpler time.