Caroline review – a heady, up-close concert for our fractured times | pop and rock

EVery intense musicians are packed in a circle in a cozy chapel in the center of Cambridge, their audience a few inches away, on the same level but perched on chairs topped with embroidered cushions. You wouldn’t want to risk the tight race to the bathroom as Carolina’s players grow increasingly animated, jostling for what little wiggle room there is.

Frankly, moving is a risk, lest the wicker beneath you creak as this large, noisy group grows quieter and quieter. Most of the time, caroline – they prefer a small c – plays in near darkness, creating a dilemma for the Observeris a photographer. How do you capture this booming new transport act without ruining their charm? (In the end, we have a song with the lights on.)

The jagged line of microphones is there in part to capture the violins, flutes, trumpets and clarinets in this unconventional outfit. Caroline’s core sound is inspired by American roots music. You could call what they do folk-rock. But the strings and brass are there to add drone whips rather than pretty delicate filigrees.

The forest of mics is there too as most of the group vocalizes at one point or another, creating an ad hoc sense of communion. Waves of massive group sounds seem to rise up, almost accidentally; on IWR (“I was right”), the backing vocals materialize just out of left field—a chant that doesn’t declare itself “singing.”

But however Caroline’s abstraction – shaking flute, electronic growls and lead percussionist Hugh Aynsley’s sheet metal noises on tracks such as Natural Death all contribute to a resounding evening – there’s always some kind of folksong waiting in behind the scenes.

Growing up outside Lewes, East Sussex, fictional singer Jasper Llewellyn and guitarist Mike O’Malley spent their youth singing Appalachian music at weddings and traveling all over Europe . Llewellyn has a stentorian vibrato that he keeps on a leash incredibly tight, until he unexpectedly knocks you aside on songs like Engine (eavesdropping).

Cellist and “fictional vocalist” of Carolina, Jasper Llewellyn. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Caroline’s much-loved self-titled debut album was released in February, parts recorded in an empty swimming pool, parts on an iPhone, the rest in a studio. But for all its wistful grace, snarky crescendos and “sad boy triumphalism” – coined by Llewellyn in an interview – this band’s fissile fragility is absolutely best experienced live.

Because Caroline is a superorganism that feeds on itself. There’s all the fun of the fair in watching how the band’s two electric guitarists, Caspar Hughes – who met Llewellyn at the University of Manchester – and O’Malley, hook up. At the end of Skydiving on the roof of the library, they challenge each other to leave bigger and bigger gaps between the resounding downward strikes they play in unison. It’s a musical staring contest that would be comical if it weren’t so tense. Trumpeter Freddy Wordsworth watches the two guitarists, judging when to add his blare.

The pleasure is in the contrasts: small church, big band; lots of anchor rehearsals, interspersed with surprises. There’s been a mini-vogue lately for oversized guitar bands playing abstract pieces. At one point there were six from Black Midi; Last January, members of this group joined Caroline in an improvised five-hour set at the Southbank Center in London.

And while Carolina doesn’t quite sound like the equally populous Black Country, New Road – currently under reconstruction after the loss of their lead singer – a Venn diagram would reveal significant overlaps.

BC, NR and Caroline both came to South London, with male and female members and uncommon instruments – Llewellyn plays cello as well as drums and guitar. Their generous compositions change course as they unfold. Post-rock is naturally another touchstone. In interviews, Caroline has mentioned being obsessed with a particular Mogwai snare drum sound. Finally, they are not so far tonight from the end of the day instrumentals of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Godspeed’s sister band with vocals, A Silver Mt Zion.

Like all these groups, caroline negotiates challenge and consolation. They look a lot like a band from our fractured moment. It would be tempting to attribute this latter-day experimental and improvisational vibe among guitar bands to the pandemic. But really, long-form instrumental music is rock’s ghost genre, ever-present, ready to provide abstract impressionism to complement the more representative images of things drawn by traditional guitar bands.

White-of-the-eyes gigs such as these have also been particularly hard hit over the past two years, with the loss of small venues and the reassignment of musicians and crews to ‘cyber’ or delivery jobs. Even Sheffield’s venerable Leadmill looks threatened. So it’s an unmitigated delight to witness the steadfastness of local left-field promoters – screaming, Crushing Death & Grief – allied with a forward-thinking, paneled, “non-prophet” church where the minister is a player jazz-bassist; a fitting melting pot for carolina’s emotional display of wild instinct tempered by great control.

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