Labels have a purpose. They’re there to bring neatness to a scatter-brained world. Grouping artists under the banners of ‘folk’ ‘rock’ and ‘country’ makes them easy to find, and easy to understand. But labels can also be cages. At least, that’s the opinion of William The Conqueror. The newly-revealed three-piece, led by the formerly-folksy and thoroughly-beardy songwriter Ruarri Joseph, was formed as an attempt to escape the confines of Joseph’s folkadelic reputation. Ironically, now he’s cast his folk trappings off like an old school tie, this July marked Joseph’s first invitation to the Cambridge Folk Festival. In the heart of the Sunday afternoon before a crammed second-tent crowd, William The Conqueror emerged to show just what ‘breaking out of type’ sounds like.
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For a band sharing monikers with one of the more boisterous figures in English history, the band’s stagecraft was decidedly humble. True to their introspective singer-songwriter origins, they kept rockstar posturing off the table and let their sloop of nostalgia-soaked serenades bring the frontman factor. Joseph himself limited his ‘grand entrance’ to a neighbourly tip of his trucker cap, before bursting into rousing opener ‘Pedestals’ in a wash of sweltering guitars and honest sentiment.
That’s as good a description as any for William The Conqueror’s new-fangled direction. All that frustration to break trope has ended in the autumnal sweet spot between muscled eighteen-wheeler blues and Walt Whitman’s teenage grunge band. Backed by the hefty Weinbergian drumbeats of Harry Harding and the drive-shaft basslines of Naomi Holmes, it’s a gas-guzzling new vehicle for Joseph’s tender touch.
The first half of the set was the revving of the engines, with William cruising through ‘The Many Faces To A Good Truth’ and ‘Did You Wrong’. Upbeat toe-tappers with a furious blues injection, they pilfered from John Gorka and B.B. King alike with all the liberated leisure of scrumpers in an orchard. Next was the hometown ballad ‘Manawatu’, taking a productive detour into REM’s well-grazed pastures, and then heading right back onto the highway with ‘Thank Me Later’, which had all the smirk and sass of an understated Aretha Franklin cover.
Aside the odd jibe at a broken strings expense, the band barely spoke. Where in the past Joseph kept the time-honoured tradition of putting his lyrics in context before he sang them, now he leaves them naked in the spotlight with little more than teases. But far from being a barrier, it adds to the immersion. Thanks to the sweeping grandeur William The Conqueror have harnessed, taking the songs blind is like wandering a museum with all the signs removed.
The band saved their heaviest hitters until last. ‘Cure’, a bittersweet slice of reminiscence echoing The War On Drugs, and lead single ‘Tend To The Thorns’ dominated the finale. Taking all the best bits of Only By The Night-era Kings of Leon and stripping back all the flourish to get to the guts. Finally, after one last tip of Joseph’s cap and a smile for the woman down the front who’d spent the whole gig sketching, William wrapped up the set with ‘Sensitive’. Built on crunchy guitars and homespun wisdom, it was an elegant summing up of all the new spices in their pot.
It’d be fair to say William The Conqueror is doing its job, and trawling a few followers on the way. In amongst the band’s campaign to break trope and find freedom of expression, the common theme in the songwriting is one they share with their monarchical namesake. Majesty. From the alternative southern rock through the rustic folk-blues, the trio’s delectable combination of descriptive lyrics and heavy-lifting soundscapes gives their songs a real sense of scale, which carries into the live setting with hypnotic results. Elegant as a knight, with some of that mystery and mythos of any figure swept in legend, they’re a band that’s already beginning to feel timeless.