HEM is a New York band causing a few ripples on this side of the pond in Europe. Their delicate melodies and sweet alt/folk harmonies have already made it onto the play list of BBC Radio 2. Their tour coincides with the success of their play-listed single "Receiver".
Tonight they're in a venue called Telfords in Chester, UK. Chester is somewhere between Liverpool and Manchester, and the venue is a refurbished warehouse designed by the famous 18th Century engineer Thomas Telford. It sits next to a river and is all substantial beams, bare bricks and redundant machinery from the industrial age.
Down a few stone steps into the heart of the building is a room with a low ceiling, and at one end is a dimly lit stage. This is possibly the most interesting and intimate venue I've been in. The audience of about 50 to 100, are seated on rows of seats which had a former life as church pews.
HEM fills the stage with just enough room to play, lead singer Sally Ellyson stands center stage and is a great focal point to the rest of the seated band who play with concentration and vigour. Instrument wise, the stage accommodates a glockenspiel, double bass, a couple of acoustic guitars and mandolins, drums and pedal steel, oh and the accompanying players! It all adds up to an "unplugged", understated, and well-rounded sound.
They're Cowboy Junkies light, certainly not as dark, especially with Ellyson who not only provides sweet and bright vocals, but adds between-song banter, and the odd shuffle to a down-home beat.
Although ploughing a similar furrow as other Americana artists as, say, Gillian Welch, the lush strings and vocals push HEM gently into a more accessible area. You can detect The Carpenters influence in the arrangements as much as you can sense a blue grass or folk roots influence in the playing.
Tonight they dug deep into their (little) catalogue with songs from their only albums thus far; "Rabbit Songs and Eveningland". Heartfelt and hopeful songs as warming as a hot toddy and an open fire.
The night ended with the band letting their hair down with Tennessee waltz, and another roots-driven upbeat number, that had each band member in turn soloing at breakneck speed. Obviously I'd have remembered the track if I wasn't enjoying it so much!
HEM have been around since 1999, but it looks like they're eventually breaking through at their own gentle pace.
Writer: Peter Doherty