Sensoria Festival closed with Richard Hawley’s Three Ring Circus event across Sheffield, Getintothis’ Andy Kelly reports on a suitable finale – and one which will live long in the memory.
“This is going to be an anti-climax, isn’t it?”
As first lines go, Bill Ryder-Jones‘ might not be typical of a headline act but then he’s perhaps acutely aware that he’s just a third of tonight’s star attractions.
The audience at Sheffield University‘s intimate Drama Studio have already been treated to sets from John Grant and opener Richard Hawley – more of which later – part of a ‘Three Ring Circus’ where the acts move between Trafalgar Warehouse, the Upper Chapel and the aforementioned Studio – with audiences getting the artists in a different order at each venue.
Anti-climax though? It’s the only thing the Wirral song-writer gets wrong all night – well apart from his aim on plectrum throwing to the audience!
Arriving on stage with a Guinness four-pack and some snake-snaped flumps, yes flumps, in a blue plastic carry-out bag, his is an almost child-like persona, offering his soul to the room – just him, a stool and a floppy fringe. Oh and that new Fender guitar.
He’s forgotten his set-list – obviously – but it hardly seems to matter. He asks for audience suggestions but playfully rejects most as ones he either can’t play without the band or can’t remember.
There’s no such problems with the opener, a song he wrote just “last night and this morning” which is currently titled “Getting On Without You”. It’s very good already and as he reminds some former lover that’s he’s doing okay right now, Ryder-Jones has the audience gripped within seconds. A dropping pin would have felt like an intrusion.
For an artist often known for his shyness, he then delivers a virtual stand-up comedy performance as he tells Michelle in the balcony that he can’t do the Beatles track of the same name for her imminent 40th birthday.
Instead she gets a dedication for the achingly good The Lemon Trees, a whispered, wistful vocal and a lyric of rare beauty: “I’ll wait by the lemon trees, if it’s comfort you need, or just a place to be”. Exquisite, restrained timing throughout. To sing as quietly and movingly as Ryder-Jones is a rare talent, almost spoken word at times, all wrapped up in some wondrous guitar.
Another highlight follows soon after in Seabirds, as open and direct as these tender confessionals get: “I don’t care where you’re running from, I will follow you.” You know he will.
He tells us how his song-writing is about not letting anything get in the way of the melody yet hoping to have something to say too. He needn’t worry on either score.
Daniel is just utterly moving, starting as a plaintive cry to a brother lost at a young age before taking in his own battles with depression: “If you take the pills, you might not get so ill, let’s make it easier for you Bill.”
Ryder-Jones speaks with such honesty to the audience that he doesn’t even need to sing in their language to get his message across, as he delivers a Super Furry Animals cover in Welsh (Arnofio) with some nice vocal echo only enhancing the effect. The only criticism could perhaps be that the audience chats probably deprived us of a couple more songs though we’re nit-picking here.
Wild Roses and Put it Down Before You Break It are another pair of highlights in a set which leaves those lucky enough to witness it simply beaming at its quality. This year’s GIT Award winner is an artist surely approaching his peak as a performer and a song-writer. The Floral Pavilion gig in New Brighton in November surely can’t be missed?
Only a set of such quality could have followed what we had witnessed beforehand from John Grant. It’s ages since Getintothis played any of his music – we reviewed his fantastic Liverpool Static Gallery show way back in the day – but he had us back within the first two lines of opener You Don’t Have To.
“Remember walking hand in hand, side by side, we walked the dogs and took long strolls to the park – except we never had dogs and never went to the park.”
Whether stood centre stage singing alone or pounding at his piano/keyboard, the American is an intense performer with plenty of “rage” to dispense. His great weapon is that bear hug of a voice, a warm powerful thing which weakens your defences before he delivers a dagger to the heart with those cutting, angry, uncompromising lyrics.
Whether on his own, or accompanied by his keyboardist and guitarist, he’s a performer it’s difficult to take your eyes off, often venting his spleen around disarmingly jaunty piano breaks.
On Vietnam, he compares a lover’s impact to that of Agent Orange while Fireflies takes us back on a nostalgia-filled trip to his Minnesota childhood. Queen of Denmark, the title track to the album which brought Grant to many people’s attention, remains a wonderful stream of consciousness and yes, once again anger.
“I wanted to change the world, but I could not even change my underwear” and “Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else” are the lines which pretty much sum it up. Masterful.
Which takes us to the man without whom we wouldn’t be here, home town boy Richard Hawley.
It was his manager who thought up the concept for the night as part of the city’s Sensoria Festival, something hopefully which can return again next year.
Hawley has long been a songwriting craftsman, his shows at the Liverpool Philharmonic making him much loved here on Merseyside too.
The joys of Snake Pass on a Saturday night mean we miss the very start of his set but there’s still plenty to soak in here. For an artist whose best songs have a wonderfully timeless feel, he’s the first act I’ve seen deliver a drum machine played through a mobile phone. Very 2016.
There’s the distinct whiff of nostalgia in Tonight The Streets Are Ours as he berates councils for lashing out ASBOs without tackling real issues and dedicates it to the “idiots” who voted for Brexit while Standing At The Sky’s Edge is another devastating piece of social commentary and may be the best song Nick Cave should have written. For Your Lover Give Some Time drifts around us in a beautiful swirl, a song with a melancholic melody which you could happily drown in.
Three songwriters, all different, but bound together by quality and artistry.
This is above all a night to remind us of the power of the song, the genius of wonderful songwriting and the joy of music. Pretty special really.
Pictures by Chris Saunders.