Balmorhea: Live at Sint-Elisabethkerk
Western Vinyl

Some live recordings play like note-for-note replications of the studio originals—with overly polite applause perfunctorily added. Balmorhea's live set, needless to say, is the splendid exception to the rule that finds the band's studio sound invigorated by the in-concert presentation. That shouldn't be interpreted to mean that the group's studio recordings have been found wanting, as Balmorhea's previous recordings have been distinguished by superb compositional writing and arrangements. But it's often true that the live context brings out a band's earthier side, and that's precisely the case here. Never before has the Austin, Texas-based septet sounded as raw and urgent as they do during this live set recorded on November 12, 2010 at the Saint Elisabeth Church (built in 1873) in Ghent, Belgium. Much of the recording naturally draws upon Balmorhea's most recent releases, with six of the dozen pieces reprised from 2010's Constellations and three from 2009's All Is Wild, All is Silent, but the material feels newly born in the live presentation.

There's no shortage of the band's trademark acoustic string, guitar, piano, and banjo elegance (supplemented with occasional wordless vocalizing), all of it conveyed with customary stateliness and soulfulness as Balmorhea leavens aggressive numbers such as “Settler,” “Truth,” and “Untitled” with mournful ruminations like “To the Order of Night” and “Night Squall.” Especially memorable is the graceful violin and cello playing that lends the dream-like “Steerage & the Lamp” its grandeur. But as affecting as such moments are, it's the band's more forceful side that leaves the greater impact, simply because Balmorhea's aggressive side has never before been exposed so thoroughly. Helping that along is the fact that the church's stone walls and floors amplify the band's sound enormously, something especially apparent when the pounding drum that appears halfway through the otherwise delicate “Bowsprit” sounds like it's on the verge of blowing out a speaker. The opening flourish of “Settler” alone finds the band eager to tear into the song and barely able to contain its pent-up energy. Naturally, the band makes good on the song's promise with a delivery brimming with fire and passion yet proves just as capable of playing with delicacy and grace when necessary. Incidental noises—an occasional voice, cough, and creak—surface throughout (perhaps most audibly during the solo piano encore performance of “Constellations”), not distractingly but more in a way that humanizes the recording by making the setting feel natural and authentic. Word is that the group already has session time booked at John McEntire's Soma Studio in Chicago for its next full-length; until it materializes, Live at Sint-Elisabethkerk will do just fine in giving fans satisfying material to dig into.

October 2011