Brighton’s ESBEN AND THE WITCH are back in Manchester. Last we saw them here, they were casting spells in the peculiar Fuhrer Bunker. They’re in another evocative venue today – St Clement’s Church in Chorlton as part of the annual Chorlton Arts Festival.
We enter the friendly DIY atmosphere as local band GHOSTING SEASON get the dark spirits spinning, but the main stage area is pretty empty on arrival, with most punters catching up on some early evening drinks in the neighbouring sales area. Word has spread that Esben and the Witch are in town (although to minimal publicity) with hardcore fans saving their ears for Rachel Davies, Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher.
As Esben get ready, we’re already getting excited and the crowds are downing their drinks and piling into the venue. Like dancers quietly stretching out before a performance, the three-piece are efficiently and serenely preparing to grace the festival goers with their unique sounds. There’s a warm atmosphere as the crowd made up of various ages including children take their positions standing or sitting on the carpeted floor. Shushes resound as the band leap into their power-filled set. Some rather drunk punters are cackling away, drowning out the sound for some of the audience, and the band are struggling with some sound issues which plague the first half of the set, but despite these distractions, all eyes and ears are on the stage as Esben work their usual magic.
Rachel is in her element – unlike at the Bunker where the band were spatially restricted, she has the full size of the popup stage to thrash out on her bass. Esben and the Witch have been unleashed and as the set moves, the performance gets wilder, with a mix of punkish and ambient sounds filling the venue and calling on the spirits to join in this memorial to life, death and everything in between. The drums are raw and relentless, while Rachel’s vocals are ghostly and haunting as usual, beautifully layered over Daniel’s intense glassy guitar riffs.
The crowd is now hanging on ever sound and lyric. As the intensity builds, it is as if we are witness to a stormy relationship embodied in music – the peaks and troughs, passions and depressions, from slow breathing to agonising suffocation. “Deathwaltz” remains one of their most stunning live tracks, but it’s not quite 100% tonight what with the ongoing technical issues.
Esben and the Witch is one of the most exciting musical developments in the UK – their humility and fragility combined with raw intensity and tautness make them a force to be reckoned with and impossible not to fall in love with on first sight/listen. We still have their most recent album “Wash the Sins Not Only the Face” on loop, and even without perfect sound their live performances produce goosebumps.