The Castle Hotel on Oldham Street has its own place in Manchester’s music folklore. John Peel interviewed Ian Curtis there once upon a time. It’s round the corner from the legendary Band On The Wall. It looks like a proper pub, with its Victorian tiles and dark wood interior. It even smells like a proper pub, and the clientele looked like regulars, who knew why they were there, and hadn’t just stumbled in whilst on a hen night in the Northern Quarter.

Unbelievably it has been a public house since 1776, the same year as the American Declaration of Independence.

At the back of the bar area is a small performance space, reminiscent of a miniature music hall or church meeting room. It has a tiny stage and a high beamed ceiling.

Vena Portae were on the last night of a short tour to promote their new album. Vena Portae is named after the vein that runs from the heart to the liver, essential for life, for processing, filtering and maintenance. Their album is the product of an intensely creative recording and writing session, snow bound in a traditional red and white wooden Swedish house in the winter of 2012. The house belongs to the parents of Ruben Engzell, and he, Dom Coyote, Emily Barker and Jesper Jonsson make up the band. It’s an Australian, Swedish and English mix with a Latin name.

Emily Barker is also part of the Red Clay Halo, and is a BAFTA award winning singer songwriter, recognised for her contribution to the 'Wallander' soundtrack.

It was wonderful to see such an accomplished band of musicians in such an intimate venue. They may have struggled to move themselves and their instruments around in the confined space, but the music was running free. Sharing the credits, the chat and the banter, the songs and the harmonies in a confidently relaxed manner, it was hard to believe that they had only been performing these songs live for a couple of weeks and had only started rehearsals the week before that. As Emily explained, they had layered up the album in the studio for the recording, rather than performed the songs live.

There’s a fascination with Nordic music and musicians. Collaborations create a great mix that meshes so well with Americana and alternative folk and country. Maybe it’s that Viking diaspora. There are some great connections too. Peter Moren of Peter, Bjorn and John has remixed the new single, 'Summer Kills'.

The set covered songs from the album and a surprise encore. 'Before the Winter', 'Foal', 'The Mapless Sea' (inspired by Ursula le Guin), 'Stingrays' (trees linked to eucalyptus and wooden paving blocks in London), 'Turning Key' (angels and aliens), 'Flames and Fury' ("Dolly Parton on bourbon") performance from Emily), 'What We Do Matter' (a brand new song), 'All Will be Well', 'No Enemies', 'Transatlantic' (written by Christian Kjellvander, who doesn’t fly so travels by boat) and 'Summer Kills', the new single. These are great songs, brought alive with stories and anecdotes and performed beautifully. They immediately feel like old friends. The encore was Peter, Bjorn and John’s 'Young Folks', definitely an old friend of mine. Emily Barker had to reveal that they couldn’t do a second encore as they hadn’t rehearsed one!

Emily Barker will be back for the Whisky Sessions with Christian Kjellvander later this year.

After they came off stage, the band chatted, signed autographs, sold CDs, even showed off their new tattoos, still wrapped in clingfilm and done in Whitley Bay earlier in the day. Dom and Ruben have the flower image from the CD cover on their wrists. It was like catching up with old friends.

Helen Chambers was the support act. From Beverley in East Yorkshire, she follows in the great singer songwriter tradition from that part of the world.







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