Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sitting at the Sky's Edge

The last time Richard Hawley came to Sussex was in 2009. He played a sublime set - pretty much the whole of the recently released Truelove’s Gutter - to a full house at the De La Warr pavilion and was genuinely taken aback by the rapturous reception afforded a man who makes music completely on his own terms and looks and sounds like he just stepped out of 1960. With a new album - Standing at the Sky’s Edge - just released, Hawley is on the road again and due to play in Sussex, at the Dome in Brighton; but not until September. Not being able to wait that long, I took a trip to London on Friday night to see the start of his tour at the Kentish Town Forum. The last time I left Sussex for a gig was in March, just over the border into Kent, to see Nick Lowe at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells. The musical trajectories of these singer/songwriters seem to have been converging in recent years, both turning out aching, melancholic rock ‘n’ roll/alt. country ballads.

My heart sinks when I go to London now: every possible money-making opportunity seems to be being squeezed until the pips squeak. London has always been the heart of the capitalist machine but it seems that flimsy apartment blocks are springing up in every available space to sell the idea of “London living” and you cannot move for food concessions that will let you eat anything you want as long as it is expensive and poor. And the last time I went to the Forum it had no sponsor (who I won’t benefit by naming) incorporated into the name of the venue. However, my feeling of being exploited evaporated quickly when I realised that the support band were the magnificent Y Niwl.

Y Niwl (The Fog) are surf-rockers from North Wales. The spirits of Hank Marvin, Duane Eddy and Dick Dale are summoned up (even though none of these are dead) for a really loud set of reverb, tremolo and Farfisa. They, of course, played the magnificent Undegpedwar (Fourteen); this is a piece better known as the theme to Football Focus and a track that has one of the best accompanying videos you are likely to see. If John Peel were still alive, you just know he would adore Y Niwl. And throughout the whole set they did not sing nor say a word; unlike Richard Hawley.

Apart from the joy of hearing his music, going to a Richard Hawley gig will always reward you with some funny stories. Tonight is no exception: Hawley comes on stage in a wheelchair. He has broken his leg, he explains, and would love to say that it happened as a result of wild, excessive abandon. The prosaic truth is that he slipped on a marble staircase in leather-soled shoes - the high price of style. He is helped on to a stool – “sitting at the sky’s edge” – where he stays for the whole set.

Hawley’s new album is something of a departure. The carefully crafted minimalism has been replaced by psychedelic guitar rock that reflects the harder-edged socio-politics of some of the songs. The opening title track – of course Sky’s Edge is an area of Sheffield - catalogues the harsh economic realities for a cast of hometown characters in these coalition times. Many songs on the new album build towards blissed-out finales and the gorgeously mellow Don’t Stare at the Sun is no exception. But that voice - with its warm, faultless timbre - remains the same.

If the stage set of British Sea Power-style potted trees reflects the album’s cover shot looking up through branches to something higher, there is still plenty of room for Hawley’s back catalogue. Truelove’s Gutter – perhaps his high watermark album – is extensively trawled for Soldier On, For Your Lover Give Some Time and the peerless Remorse Code. Before he plays Tonight the Streets Are Ours, from Lady’s Bridge, he tells an anecdote about getting a phone call from Banksy asking permission to use the song in his film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Hanging out the washing as penance for having one too many at lunchtime, the pissed and uncomprehending Hawley thinks he is talking to one of his mates who shares the same name. As always when I go to a gig, there is a song that suddenly leaps out at me. Tonight, The Ocean from Coles Corner strikes me as a work of staggering beauty that I feel ashamed for neglecting this long.

Hawley’s new material has probably broadened his appeal. There were a lot more young people in the audience than I have seen at previous gigs and, when my mate was in the toilet, a bloke complained to him that he wasn’t too keen on “all the slow stuff”. I did notice some attention spans shrinking and faces lit up by smart ‘phones during the more meditative songs, tweeting that they had seen Lauren Laverne in the bar, no doubt; but when it came to choosing the encore - we were given a choice between two quiet songs or one rock-out number – discretion won the day.

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