No one seemed more surprised than their singer, Nick Hemming, to be fronting the stage of the Barbican backed by a full orchestra. One early B-side, he revealed, had been written when he was in the grip of depression, wondering whether he would ever make it in music, and rehearsing it with the orchestra had reduced him to tears.
What swung it for The Leisure Society was an Ivor Novello Award nomination before they had even signed a recording contract. Their melodies somehow make melancholia uplifting but there is more to the band than songcraft. They have always taken a delight in instrumentation, and the backing of the Heritage Orchestra amplified that.
A delicate balancing act on the mixing desk must have been required to cater for the orchestra in full flight and still leave space for Helen Whittaker’s flute, for the whistled counterpoint and chimes on “Sleeper”, the harp at the close of “Hungry Years”, and for the wine glass fingered like a glass harmonica at the end of “We Were Wasted”.
At times the orchestra exaggerated the moods of the songs: the petty histrionics of “Save It For Someone Who Cares” were plumped into full-scale Opéra Bouffe. On “Just Like the Knife” the big band merely implied by the original was suddenly present in full effect. “Into the Murky Water” played games with scale, starting with the whole orchestra clapping, then reflecting a massive syncopated brass strut off Hemming’s tiny ukulele.
“Last of the Melting Snow” was more winning than ever, with a lush instrumental introduction carried on flute, strings and vibes, then swelling with Christian Hardy’s piano. But the delightful surprise was that B-side, never before performed live. “If God Did Give Me a Choice” was a three-quarter-time anthem of desperate self-belief. “To be heard you have to be seen,” Hemming sang to himself, until his bandmates joined in a cappella.
The Leisure Society took the encores alone: “Our Hearts Burn Like Damp Matches”, with Manu Delago’s pattered metallic accompaniment on the hang, increasingly frenzied country dances and a cover of Erasure’s “A Little Respect”, with the synthesiser part mimicked on violin and flute. Then, in the middle of “A Matter of Time”, the orchestra came back to clap and stamp and mirror the audience’s beaming smiles.