A dimly lit auditorium, the stage scattered with instruments, and a palpable buzz in the assembled crowd. Everything was set for the People’s String Foundation Trio at The Poly, a pared down incarnation of the occasionally 24-strong People’s String Foundation, featuring Zaid Al-Rikabi on guitars, Chris Jones somehow making a double bass look small, and Ben Sutcliffe on violin, piano and vocals.
The room faded to black, and the trio took their places. In the little light there was, the first thing visible was bandleader Ben Sutcliffe’s infectious grin. They were swiftly lit, and with no introductions, their urban-roots music took centre stage.
A gorgeous and full overture to open, with just three instruments: guitar, double bass and a soft, gliding violin. Having had such a strong instrumental start, it was easy to forget that Sutcliffe can sing too. His voice is utterly distinctive, delicate, yet filled with character, the perfect medium for their vivid and evocative songs: sometimes jazzy, sometimes Middle Eastern, but always perfectly arranged. They show a real mastery of dynamics as the tunes shift from light to dark, from heavy to soft, with each instrument given precedence at different points.
It seems there is no group of musicians that enjoy performing quite as much as the PSF. They appear to be a trio of friends, thriving off one another, and playing games with their music. One moment saw them huddled together, conspiratorially, daring one another to play as softly as they could, before bursting back to full volume. Their enjoyment is obvious and utterly contagious, bringing about joyous foot-tapping and shoulder-bopping in the person I was sat with. The desire to stand up and dance in the aisles was barely controllable.
While they were performing as trio, nothing felt absent, the songs arranged accordingly for the formidable musicians assembled: Al-Rikabi’s pristine and precise guitar work, the perfect foil for Sutcliffe’s soaring violin. When they are in full flow, it’s hard to see where Sutcliffe ends and the violin begins, it simply seems an organic extension of his body. Though he is not limited to the one instrument, and the hypnotic mess of interwoven arms on the piano refrain during The Days was remarkable. Chris Jones’ mesmerising, intricate basslines complete the package. His solo opening to the second half, backed by slowly pulsating synth, was a highlight of the evening.
The music was excellent, and while the lighting occasionally distracted, the evening has left me itching to see them in concert again. They are good on CD, but shine when live. The full orchestra performs at the Minack Theatre on Saturday 2nd May, so go, and experience this passionate blend of musical styles for yourself.