Sometimes it’s worth making the effort to arrive at the gig early as you may catch someone as compelling as opener Sean McGowan. Armed with a well worn acoustic, a line of banter that if he wasn’t on stage, you’d be willingly buying skyhooks from him. In his own words he’s “a former bog cleaner from Southampton.” Tonight, we can be grateful that Southampton’s loss is our gain. McGowan is steeped in a very British troubadour heritage that runs from Strummer and Bragg, through Badly Drawn Boy, Itch and McGowan’s now label mate Frank Turner. With such a bare bones approach his lyrics are highlighted by his driven delivery. Each song is imbibed with vignettes of modern life that recall a six stringed Mike Skinner. As we take pictures for his Nan, McGowan thanks us and reminds us that he’ll be at The Crofter’s Rights in May. Try not to miss that one.
On next are Ida Mae. Consisting of Chris Turpin and his former Kill it Kid bandmate (now wife) the ethereal Stephanie. Armed with a beautiful steel guitar, a slide, some shakers, two voices perfectly melting together and a clutch of songs that demand your heart, soul and bootie; Ide Mae simply win you over. And it never ceases to amaze where Turpin hides his ragged howl in his slender frame.
A story tells us that one song is inspired by two old punks they know. I will put money that the song will become a staple first dance at weddings. It’s perfectly heartfelt. Musically Ida Mae mine a rich seam of Americana and their much loved dustbowl blues. But these songs are light years away from being well performed re-hashes. They sound as if they were always there, with exquisite hooks making the whole set wonderfully spellbinding. With the promise of an Ethan Jones produced album coming this summer, along with more shows, we are soon going to be gifted with a lot more of the charm and magic of Ida Mae.
If Will Varley was ever worried about having such strong openers, his chilled, charming demeanor never showed it. It’s the show on the eve of his fifth album Spirit of Minnie release and we are treated to some of that tonight, but Varley has a deep catalogue to dig into and his does that in front of a devoted crowd. First song in and we are singing the chorus with him. We are treated to the news of his recent marriage and the impending fear/wonderment of fatherhood. Varley’s set is roughly 50/50 augmented with a band. Without the context of hearing the new album, it’s hard to hear what the band bring to the songs, they seem to lend Varley’s songs a slight homogenised air, recalling Cold Roses era Ryan Adams, and making it all a bit Radio 2. That said, ‘The Man who Fell to Earth’ is utterly captivating, and a tuning/salmon issue breaks the ice and truly unifies (one of those ‘had to be there moments’). After ‘Blood and Bone’ Varley’s has won even the doubters over and takes us through to a triumphant encore finishing on the sublime ‘Seize the Night’.
Alone each act this evening will give you a damn good gig, with Ida Mae just stealing the crown. Tie all three together for roughly the price of a few pints, you have a show that is an early contender for those end of year lists.