April 11, 2012 5:48 pm

Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Railway, Winchester, UK

The Buckinghamshire band were bursting to show off their new, bigger, more ambitious sound

Tim Elsenburg, the frontman of Sweet Billy Pilgrim, has ambitions. “We’re conquering the world,” he said, “one person at a time.” It has been a slow process. When the band emerged from the unfashionable end of Buckinghamshire almost a decade ago, their first recordings probably went unheard even by their own families. But their second album, Twice Born Men, won a Mercury nomination, and they enjoyed a vogue as a credibility-enhancing support act, umbilically joined to the Portico Quartet and opening for artists as diverse as Rokia Traore and The Who.

Having played the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican, the band might have found it a rude shock to be performing in the glorified shed of Winchester’s Railway. But on a mini-tour ahead of the release of their third album, Crown and Treaty, the band were bursting to show off their trajectory. The original three-piece have now added a further singer, Jana Carpenter, and for the tour are bulked out by Dan Garland on keyboards and Barney Muller on guitar.

The band’s occasionally wispy electronic folk has been toughened up, perhaps by the company they have kept – a change audible in the older material they revisited. “In the Water I Am Beautiful”, originally spun over spiky banjo, became a stop-start guitar assault, Elsenburg turning sideways like a hieroglyph to fire off chords against a synthesized mosquito whine.

The new material had a similar punch. On “Joyful Reunion” the central sound was of Alistair Hamer pounding the drums, though the music dropped away for a trademark passage of call-and-response harmony singing. The instantly memorable hook of “Archaeology” should make it a shoo-in for the soundtrack of a US television drama. Notwithstanding its opening Peter Greenaway sample, “Kracklite” had an old-timey country swing, with harmonies that recalled The Band, and a hint of accordion and piano from the keyboards.

But Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s rootsier side was still present in the closing “Blue Sky Falls”, with Elsenburg and Carpenter duetting over Anthony Bishop’s slow after-hours waltz of a bassline and a hint of gospel organ, and the encore, a fragile acoustic reading of “Truth Only Smiles”.

The transformation of heightened ambition, however, was clearest on “Future Perfect Tense”, its buttonholing riff long the band’s calling card. With four guitars in the line-up, it swelled from ominous to epic, the long instrumental section sounding like a flying saucer invasion, and ended with a massed clenched-fist salute, any irony delicately hedged.

4 stars

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