VISITING THE CITY OF HIS ALMA MATER FOR THE FIRST TIME IN WHO KNOWS HOW LONG (AND IT’S BEEN TWENTY YEARS SINCE HE LAST PLAYED HERE WITH TRACEY THORN AS HALF OF EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL), BEN WATT’S GIG AT FRUIT IN HULL IS A MIX OF NOSTALGIC HOMECOMING AND INTIMATE CONFESSIONAL.
How much of what he reveals is a regular feature of gigs on this current tour is open to debate. And what he reveals is not always comfortable. But where more comforting to hear it – to express it, perhaps – than in the bosom of the city at least some part of it began? Approaching 52 – an age at which life has begun to take away more rapidly than it gives – Watt reels off warm memories of burgeoning adulthood in East Yorkshire; meeting Tracey, nascent songwriting, student digs, a fish-and-chip shop… He reveals how streets in a pair of nearby seaside towns were the inspiration for his solo debut album in 1983; Scarborough’s Marine Drive a romantic circular around the town’s castle and Bridlington’s North Marine Drive an unassuming by-road – both equally fitting.
Candid stories will be of little surprise to those who read Watt’s affecting parental memoir ROMANY AND TOM earlier this year. There is a curious moment during tonight’s gig when only one or two in the crowd seem to have heard of it – the book was all over broadsheets and discerning music press – so perhaps this is a constituency somewhat off message and anticipating a preserved-in-amber Everything But The Girl-based set list ..? That it most certainly is not. Though there are a couple of moments (25TH OF DECEMBER from AMPLIFIED HEART and THE NIGHT I HEARD CARUSO SING from IDLEWILD), they’re essentially solo songs well-chosen to chime with the themes of ROMANY AND TOM and material from recent album HENDRA.
Earlier in the afternoon, he tells his attentive audience, he’d been to a stall in a local arcade and bought VEEDON FLEECE on vinyl “for eight quid”. Van Morrison’s often undervalued pastoral masterpiece from 1974 is a reasonable touchstone for HENDRA, the legitimate follow-up to NORTH MARINE DRIVE thirty one years after the fact. Watt airs parts of both, and in this context there seems to be little more than a sliver between two eras of solo songwriting; that penchant for certain jazz-inflected chords and tender melodies remains as strong in 2014 as back in ’83 and his voice doesn’t seem to have aged. But the material from NORTH MARINE DRIVE is earnest against HENDRA’s mourning and the juxtaposition brings further enlightening angles on both.
It’s almost unbearably poignant when he explains the genesis of THE LEVELS – perhaps the finest moment on HENDRA. Shortly before he completed the writing of ROMANY AND TOM Watt’s sister (“the heartbeat of the family”) was diagnosed with cancer. And three weeks later she was gone. THE LEVELS was written for his brother-in-law, left to run the couple’s village shop alone. It’s a song of resilience, the brutality of life’s centre blurred on the album version by a stunning supporting turn from David Gilmour.
Bernard Butler also plays on HENDRA – almost all of it, in fact – and makes up a third of Watt’s live trio. Technical brilliance seems to be less than a third of his talent; invention and imagination take him everywhere and beyond where it is he might need to go in the service of song. Even the ad hoc jam with drummer Martin Ditcham during a brief meltdown and repair for Watt’s guitar is awe-inspiring; a casual masterclass in improvisation. What Butler offers HENDRA is much more than complementary ornamentation, it is essential to counterbalance Watt’s writing. It is the sounding board; the friend who stays up until four or five in the morning listening to your grief, and then challenges you to pick yourself up and push yourself through.
Watt encores solo at a Wurlitzer electric piano with THE NIGHT I HEARD CARUSO SING, written in the mid-80s after a bonding trip to the highlands with his dad suffering from depression. The two stand on the shores of a loch with Watt hoping this unspoiled vista will help his father reconnect with the beauty of living. A nuclear submarine surfaces darkly metres in front of them. The story is a moment of slapstick in a set which is otherwise dense with middle of life stoicism and circle of life wisdom, but it offers wry metaphor for HENDRA’s inescapable and often overwhelming truths.