Three Cane Whale, who appear at St George’s on Thursday 24 January supported by their special guests Telling The Bees, are the kind of group who – if you get them at all – tend to inspire absolute devotion, love even. I’m not sure I got them at first, despite appreciating the combined talents of the three distinguished members: Paul Bradley, Pete Judge and Alex Vann, all familiar faces from various Bristol-based projects over a number of years.

It was probably seeing them in concert on a rain-misted afternoon (Saturday June 2, 2012, I checked) in the beautiful setting of the small but perfectly formed 11th century church of Partrishow in the Black Mountains that did it for me. The church, of course, is well worth seeing on its own (check it out here), but the match between its humble stone exterior and the modest grandeur hidden within (a killer of a rood screen, medieval wall paintings, ancient font) with the music of TCW, whose similarly rough-hewn poverty of means conceals great delicacy, could have been heaven-sent. I can’t find a clip of the performance, but here’s TCW playing in another church, just for reference.

I don’t think Three Cane Whale’s music has any special ecclesiastical bent, but churches have loomed large in their recording and performing career, including the church of St George’s, Brandon Hill (as was), whose third performance I’ve promoted there this will be. The group’s debut album was recorded at an eighteenth century church in Redland, and their remarkable follow-up, ‘Holts and Hovers’, is the product of a location road trip, with churches, chapels, kitchens, hilltops and the space underneath a Bristol flyover all pressed into acoustic service. I think it was at least partly this peripatetic approach, and the evident care and planning behind the album’s making – as well as the easy grace and charm of its contents – that endeared so many people to what remains a fairly avant-garde offering of instrumental, difficult-to-categorise music. Certainly, it’s been a big critical hit, as the reviews on their website make clear.

As to where Three Cane Whale’s music comes from, other than out of their heads and a broad collective experience that takes in theatre as well as all sorts of bands, it’s difficult to say. There’s perhaps a slight touch of the old Incredible String Band, and a contemporary echo of other toilers in the Brit-folk underground of the Sixties and early Seventies whose rediscovery in recent years has marked lots of projects. But folk is only the half of it, if that. Much of the most interesting left-field jazz of the last decade or more has espoused a similar economy of means to create wide open acoustic spaces, from the rolling cowboy vistas of Bill Frisell to the ambient-friendly Tin Hat Trio, whose Mark Orton composed the acclaimed new Alexander Payne film, ‘Nebraska’. As you can hear here, the addition of a trumpet makes THT sound so like TCW that one suspects the boot is on the other foot.

What the name Three Cane Whale means, or refers to, I think I once knew but have now forgotten. Perhaps they’ll tell us on the night, which looks like being very well-attended.

Phil Johnson, Senior Programme Producer


Three Cane Whale perform live at St George’s Bristol this Thursday (23 Jan) at 8pm. Tickets are £12 (plus fees) – click here for more information.