Saturday, October 13, 2012

Richard Hawley: Guitar Hero

Picture courtesy of Sophie Jarry
La Pigalle, for those who've lived a sheltered existence, is the saucy bit of Paris. It is where high kickin' dancing girls still can-can away in their frillies at the Moulin Rouge. And it continues to draw busloads of tourists to gawp at its sex shops and peer, embarrassingly and embarassed, into seedy-looking doorways in which alluringly-clad women attempt to entice inwards the feckless and the gullible.

Like London's Soho in the 60s, seediness sits alongside artistry in Pigalle. Toulouse-Letrec, Van Gogh and Picasso were all once residents there, but today, however, its second main attraction are the myriad guitar shops lining the conjoined length of les rues de Douai and Victor Massé.

So it was appropriate that, given the choice of venues in Paris, Richard Hawley chose to play to a warming audience at La Cigale, one of the grand old 19th century theatres along Boulevard de Rochechouart and just 200 yards from Pigalle Métro (where, quite randomly, I ran into his mate Jarvis Cocker earlier this year).

Picture: Richard Hawley/Facebook

A fittingly vintage venue for a fittingly vintage performer. Hawley is not only a gifted guitarist, but so clearly a consummate guitar fan, whose Facebook page regularly features near gynaecological close-ups of classic guitars and gear.

To the uninitiated, a guitar's a guitar. To the semi-initiated, you can tell the difference between the sound of a Stratocaster and that of a Telecaster, as my neighbours will, by now, readily testify, me being the owner of one of each.

To a connoisseur like Hawley, every guitar has its own feel, its own sound texture, its own personality. Which might explain why the busiest man in La Cigale on Wednesday night was Hawley's guitar tech Gordon, who yo-yoed off and on stage to swap out a never ceasing carousel of Gibsons, Gretchs, Rickenbackers, Danelectros and other six-stringed antique esoterica.

Until the release, earlier this year, of the unrelentingly brilliant, Mercury Prize-nominated Standing At The Sky's Edge - Hawley's previous, acclaimed albums, had been showcases for his love of gentle, late night 50s croons evoking the ballads of Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone, and each bringing out the luscious timbre of his Sheffield-scraped voice.

He has, however, been for the last 25 years the bridesmaid but rarely the bride. As a writer and sideman-for-hire to the likes of All Saints, Robbie Williams, Lisa-Marie Presley, Elbow and, most famously, a member of Pulp, Hawley has developed a reputation for being someone you either know or don't know. Fatuous as that sounds, if X-Factor provides your musical direction, you will not have heard of him.

I have to admit, until Standing At The Sky's Edge was released in May this year, I'd hardly heard of him either. My interest in 50s pastiche acts ended somewhere in the middle of Chris Isaak's career. And then a friend of mine recommended that I listened to Edge..., and Hawley was, for me, no longer a Brylcreemed throwback, but an artist of rare balance, a peddler of the sort of vibe music I have loved ever since I first caught a snatch of Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond as the backing of a Richard Burton-narrated radio broadcast of The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner in an English class 33 years ago.

Edge... marked a particular departure for Hawley: his previous albums had contained much gentle balladry; this album presented a more visceral sound, an outlet for Hawley to rage at modern Britain via his guitars, echo boxes and overdrive pedals, producing, in the process, a stunning collection of psychedelic power rock that seemed to tie 1951 with 1969 in one great loop of reverb.

Thus, the album formed a large part of his Paris set on Wednesday, which opened with the title track and Hawley playing a Gibson Les Paul gold top (yes, sadly, I was keeping note). It built slowly to the unleashing of a wall of electrified colour, a thundersome application of guitars plugged into tweed amplifiers, distortion stomp boxes and canyon-deep echo.

The anger and aural evisceration of Edge... soon evapourated as Hawley broke into his gentle, dry Yorkshire humour to explain the backstory of Don't Stare At The Sun, the dreamy song about a kyte-flying trip with his son. And a trip it was - literally -  having made the error of judgement of dropping acid shortly before. A brief but funny anecdote, and one that Radio 2 might want to gloss over when they play the track which, live, found Hawley pouring heart and soul in equal measure into the microphone and his delay-drenched Rickenbacker.

Hawley's wonderfully dry humour provides a relaxing feed for the songs he sings. He has natural comic timing, which he uses to good effect, either to introduce the twinkling old dancehall smooch of Hotel Room with a funny tale of how he broke his leg in Barcelona last year, or to simply rage at the "wankers" running the world.

It's old-school ire, but thankfully not the eccentric variety of dotty old Morrissey, who Hawley resembles vocally on the jangling Tonight The Streets Are Ours, which sounds more like the closing title music of a Doris Day movie.

Edge... may have taken an edgier tone on its predecessors, but it still contains its tender moments. The single Seek It loses nothing live, and Hawley's band even make a song, which sounds compact and pretty when listened through headphones on a train, expand into the faded glory of La Cigale's old ballroom space. It's a sumptuous song. Performed, I believe, by Hawley on a Danelectro. Sorry.

I mentioned earlier how Pink Floyd introduced me to vibe, and you wouldn't expect a repeat mention of the prog behemoth in a review of an artist based so faithfully on the music of even longer ago. But in Hawley's "quietest song" - Soldier On - in which he successfully shuts up the incessant concert chatterers we all loathe by politely asking them to observe pin-drop silence - he evokes the sort of tune-out wooze that Floyd did so well in the early years of David Gilmour's growing influence.

With drummer Dean Beresford working his way around his kit using the palms of his hands to produce a restrained pulse, and guitarist Shez Sheridan working a lap steel with an exquisite touch, Hawley and band threw a comforting blanket of vibe over the audience for a song of breathtaking subtlety, layer and spine-tingling effect.

Picture courtesy of Sophie Jarry
These are the moments that in the hands of nightclub singers - with whom Hawley inevitably shares a vocal parallel - would have been accompanied by swaying hands and ignited cigarette lighters. With Hawley, no such cheese, just the respect of an audience that becomes overwhelmingly drawn into his endearing nature. It allows him to swing from ballad to boom, such as the thundering Leave Your Body Behind You, or Down In The Woods, which is a clanging song on the album, but clangs even harder live, reminding me, bizarrely, of Motorhead's Ace Of Spades. You probably had to be there.

There is also something cinematic about Hawley's touch: given the curmudgeon in some quarters over the choice of Adele for the latest Bond theme, Open Up The Door carries a decidedly John Barry-style expanse, with a string flourish, I suspect, deliberately apeing the You Only Live Twice theme. Remorse Code, on the other hand, will surely turn up as the bed music for a dreamy holiday programme, with its shimmery, delightfully trippy tremolo solo.

Live, Hawley pulls off a neat trick. His performances are pristine, faithful replications of the original tracks on his albums. But whereas this can often render the artist excessively antiseptic, Hawley - whether overdriving the heavier songs from Standing At The Sky's Edge or crooning the more bucolic numbers from Truelove's Gutter and its predecessors - makes them fit every nook and antiquated cranny of a venue like La Cigale. I expected a good show. I just didn't expect to be as musically nourished, and as sonically satisfied as I was on Wednesday night. Just brilliant.


  1. Simon - great review but Dean does the palm bit on Remorse Code rather than Soldier On. Did you check out the Philharmonic gig from BBC6 as that added another dimension to his music (see Richard's forum for links to the tracks)

    1. Oops! Good catch, thanks for spotting it! I've so far only heard bits from the RPO show (the tracks RH played on 6Music when he sat in for Cerys Matthews, which itself was a terrific show.