Ben Watt came to town with a mix of new songs and old, including a rare outing for an old classic and Getintothis’ Paul Fitzgerald was at the Arts Club to witness this transcendent performance.
Ben Watt is a musician, writer, producer and DJ who lives and breathes his work, and even now, after such a long and all encompassing career, forever challenging himself into improving on what’s gone before. And let’s face it, a lot has gone before. This prolific artist just keeps coming back, adding more layers and bringing new ideas. Second studio album Hendra (2014) brought quiet moments of considered introspection, songs of hope and frustration.
Watt creates his characters with a sharpened and keen observational eye, always has done. A true folk storytelling quality. This inquisitive, evocative poetry, and his ability to draw the listener into the very centre of the story, has been his stock in trade since his first outing North Marine Drive back in 1983, and shows little sign of abatement. Happily.
There were moments, almost conversational, hushed moments where Watt opened himself up, baring the emotion, and leaning in to the narrative of these stories. The dynamics of his performance – given colour here by his partner in crime, the ever supreme and superlative Bernard Butler – held the audience transfixed throughout, such is the perfect balance the two create together. Butler’s ability to lend signatures of colour, and lift each section is a true pleasure to hear. Songs such as Nathaniel find Butler in full on riff mode, and he and Watt display a well honed and instinctive affinity for each other’s playing.
The title track from Hendra, again lifted by Butler’s subtle and reflective guitar lines, was written for Watt’s sister. Its a song of loss, where Watt attempts to vocalise his sister’s thoughts. The pain is there in the lyric, and clear in Watt’s performance of this sublime and beautiful piece of music.
An unexpected treat, and an absolute highlight of the night for just about the whole audience, was when Ben Watt explained that when selecting songs for this tour, he’d brought himself full circle and found himself back at the beginning. Many of the audience here discovered Watt’s work through the Cherry Red Records now legendary Pillows And Prayers compilation album, which also featured Tracey Thorn‘s band at the time, Marine Girls, as well as an early taste of Everything But The Girl. Fond memories for many in the crowd. Watt’s contribution to that record, Some Things Don’t Matter, a lilting and endearing jazz folk tale of a young man’s search for love, has never been played live outside of London until this tour. The reception it engendered in this dedicated and committed audience was clear. For the great majority inside the Arts Club this song marked the beginning of a journey that brought them back here, and has kept bringing them back for over 30 years. A very special moment indeed.
Fever Dream’s Winter’s Eve is another highlight, with Watt seated at the piano, and some warm, honeyed harmonies supplied by bassist Rex Horan. Building from Watt‘s solo intro, it’s a filmic piece, underlined and lit by Butler‘s subtle and well spaced playing, evocative of the cold and dark months, and yearning for the passing of the season.
Watt‘s return to the studio, and to the stage in recent years is as welcome as it is necessary. This was an absolute tour de force of songwriting, and performance. Instinctive creators of this calibre, with such musicality, gifted with such observational lyrical insight, don’t come round every five minutes, We should cherish them, just as the grateful crowd at Arts Club did.
Support came from Michele Stodart, performing solo and away from the day job, as a member of The Magic Numbers. Stodart is an engaging and impressive solo performer, and the country folk of her new album, Wide Eyed Crossing, while not a huge step away from her work with the band, gives her the opportunity to put down the bass, pick up an acoustic and step into the spotlight. It’s clear from the songs, and her performance that this process suits her. Her vocals, possessive of the sweet harmonics which she brings to The Magic Numbers, are warm and coloured with the west coast sun.
The songs, flavoured with occasional hints of Emmylou Harris and Joan Baez, are attractive melodic pieces, worked up over years, and her performance of them passionate and accomplished. We’d expect nothing less of a performer with such high musicality. We listened to the album in the car on the way home, it warmed up a cold, wet drive through the city at night.
Pictures by Getintothis’ John Johnson