"OK. Let's ballad!"
Professionalism may be a dirty word in indie rock, but there is something to be said for someone who can play his instrument with skill, hit all the notes, keep the crowd entertained between songs, and surrounds himself with a similarly talented band. This was Richard Hawley.
This shouldn't really come as a surprise. Hawley has made his living as a well-respected hired gun. In addition to official stints with the underrated Longpigs and Pulp (brought in to fill Russel Senior's void), he's also played on tracks by Robbie Williams, Beth Orton, All Saints (!), Finley Quay, and A Girl Called Eddy. But he is also a singer-songwriter whose music seems to have been transported from a different era. With a velvety croon, reverbed, twangy guitars and lush orchestration, his music recalls Jimmy Webb, Scott Walker, Johnny Cash, Burt Bacharach, and Marty Robbins.
That out-of-time quality was reinforced at last night's show at Sin-é that can be summed up in two words: Pure class. Clad in black with slicked-back hair Hawley and his band looked like they stepped onto stage in 1962. Only the canned strings -- via laptop -- of the swooning "Cole's Corner" gave any indication that this was, in fact, 2006. Once he turned up his amps after that first song, the sound was borderline immaculate which is always nice but really important with music like Hawley's. He played the bulk of new album Cole's Corner, a good portion of 2003's Lowedges, but almost nothing -- if anything -- from his 2001 debut, Late Night Final. Which is too bad -- I really wanted to hear the gorgeous, sad "Long Black Train."
Hawley's band -- which included guitarist/collaborator Shez Sheridan, playing a spiffy Fender 12-string -- were ace, rarely missing a note and providing pitch-perfect backing vocals on songs like "Just Like the Rain." They were all in their late-30s, had no time for posing or trying to look cool. Which, of course, made them even cooler. Hawley had a music stand with a lyrics book on it, but he rarely looked at it. The man is funny too, with lots of entertaining between-song banter. Highlights, for me, were "Born Under a Bad Sign," "Just Like the Rain," "The Ocean" and Lowedges' "Motorcycle Song." After 45 minute set they said good night, but after much genuine applause came back for three songs, including an old country cover ("This song is old. It came over on the Mayflower with typhoid and syphilis.") and a spirited version of the rock n' roll standard "That's All Right Mamma."
I'm sure they were there, but it didn't seem like an industry crowd. People knew the songs and shouted out requests... to increasing annoyance from Hawley. There were a fair number of drunken expats, including one who claimed he went to the same Sheffield school as Hawley. This led to an anecdote about his hated school music teacher who, according to Hawley, gave him a stand-up bass when he graduated, only to then report it stolen! "The c**t!" Even when unleashing the C-bomb, Hawley came off a classy guy.
Cole's Corner made my Best of 2005 list.
Despite the aforementioned immaculate sound, I really don't like Sin-é as a venue. It's just like Rothko: you enter to the packed performance space and have to fight your way over to the bar. Plus, they have tables and stools that people tend to drag out to the main space and sit on. Very annoying.
I think I only saw a flash go off once during the whole show which makes me wish I'd brought my camera. No pictures on Flickr of the show. I was right up front, center, and coulda gotten some good shots. Instead, I attempted to take a couple using my cellphone. I suppose it's better than nothing. Maybe not.