Review: The Wilderness Of Manitoba – The Slaughtered Lamb, London

The Wilderness of Manitoba were something of a phenomenon at last year’s End Of The Road Festival, making the informal piano stage their own with some delightful late-night performances. So when they announced a show at the tiny underground den that is the Slaughtered Lamb’s gig room, getting a ticket was a no-brainer.

Support tonight was from a one-man guitar/vocal act called Mute Swimmer. Describing himself as a “visual and sound artist”, his set seemed to consist of semi-improvised songs claiming to be “about the moment”, essentially attempting to challenge the listener to question the nature of song and live performance. It was something that really would have been more at home in a pretentious performance art workshop than a subterranean folk gig.

Anyway, after a short interlude the Wilderness were with us, full of the joys of the unseasonably warm weather that the day had brought us. They bring an infectious joy to proceedings, turning songs that can sound sparse and distant on record into warm, lush campfire anthems. Their trademark singing bowls were surprisingly less frequently used this evening, being saved for filling out the quieter moments with their random and ethereal metallic rings.

Much of the lyrical content of the band’s music focuses on a sense of place and history, death and redemption. This inevitably has much to do with the death of lead singer Will Whitwham’s mother, whose song Evening is a regular highlight of their set. This song fits seamlessly in with their own songs, highlighting the influence of her folky recordings which were a formative influence on the band. Also tonight they slipped in a cover of a Timber Timbre song. Having been less than impresed with this particular outfit’s downbeat mood and unfriendly attitude towards audiences, the Wilderness treatment gave this cover a lightness of tone that I suspect would be absent from the original.

A number of new songs were aired tonight and, while making not heralding any significant change in direction, suggested a move towards a fuller sound, which they have steadily been bringing to their live performance since their early, wispy recordings. A natural progression, and a welcome one, as long as they’re not too tempted to over-elaborate. Their beauty is simplicity, allowing the subtle harmonies to take centre stage, as typified by the delightful Orono Park, which could easily punch its weight with any of Fleet Foxes’ offerings.

The Wilderness of Manitoba always leave you feeling like you’ve spent time with friends, and in a crowded music scene full of people screaming “look at me”, it’s always welcome to be in the company of a band who are all about us.

Simon Sadler