Live: Ben Watt feat. Bernard Butler @ Union Chapel, London
After a hiatus of some 30 years, Ben Watt released his second solo album Hendra in 2014. However Ben certainly hasn’t been lazy during that time; having recorded 11 albums as one half of Everything But The Girl he went on to work as a producer, DJ in the club scene, remixer, radio presenter and is the author of two memoirs. With his solo recording career now reinvigorated, Fever Dream followed in quick succession earlier this year and is the focus of this current tour.
We are lucky to have Michele Stodart playing the opening set for the evening. Perhaps more instantly known as one of The Magic Numbers, Michele wanted to spend time working on her own songs and now has two albums to her name. Tonight she is ably assisted by Will Harvey on violin and Matt Skipper on guitar and other instruments.
Starting off gently with Something About You, a sweet violin-accompanied serenade, we’re then taken on an Americana-tinged trip via an Invitation To The Blues and Take Your Loving Back where her voice soars into the vaulted ceiling. Feisty and bittersweet Foolish Love is a chance to rock out before the more balladic Just Anyone Won’t Do and Ain’t No Woman.
Michele says it would be nice to hear a choir in the chapel and invites us to join in the simple refrain of the closing song Will You Wait. Michele lifted our hearts with this showcase of her song-writing talent and the crowd responds with evident appreciation.
The beautiful Victorian Gothic interior is bathed with a reddish glow prior to the lights dimming as Ben takes the stage to warmly welcoming applause. He leads off with a sparse rendition of Running with the Front Runners on acoustic guitar accompanied by Rex Horan on double bass. Ben pauses to say a few words to those who have gathered to enjoy this sold out London date. Then the rest of his touring band step on stage for Bricks and Wood, filling out the sound by adding guitar bends and percussion to the woody bass tones. Invoking a nostalgic visit to his parents’ old home, “Always in Ektachrome” is a phrase that sets a recurrent theme for the evening.
Subtle drumming from Makoto Sakamoto underpins the melody of Young Man’s Game before the pace picks up for a fiercely dynamic Faces of my Friends. The driving force on lead guitar is Bernard Butler, who is also freely credited by Ben as his musical collaborator on the latest two solo albums. Bernard and Makoto are no strangers either having worked together in the late 90s. These established connections no doubt lie behind the fact that the band fits together with such ease.
There’s a slow intro to the jazz blues infused Golden Ratio. Ben’s impassioned delivery stands out here, his voice strengthened over the years and with touring. “I want no regrets and no remorse / I want to see life as its own resource” then in an extended run out he intones “It will be me, I’ll make it me” like a deeply spiritual mantra.
Giving separate and very personal introductions to the next two pieces Ben comments that Some Things Don’t Matter, taken from his first album, in many ways represents “Me, aged 19”. In contrast Hendra is more “Who I am now”. He explains that Hendra is a Cornish word meaning “home farm”, and says that he feels he has come back home in returning to the troubadour he wanted to be when he was younger. Written in memory of his half-sister and sung in her voice, the poignant poetry feels close to a prayer.
When choosing the set list Rollercoaster was a track that Ben picked out from the EBTG days. It was written by Ben after he was severely ill with a devastating disease that threw his life off-course for several years, but back then it was always sung by Tracey. Now with Ben performing solo at a Wurlitzer piano it’s an emotional moment as he pours his soul into this song.
The band rejoins and we are treated to wonderful versions of Winter’s Eve and Gradually where strong bass lines and versatile drumming come to the fore. Throughout the night the set has been accentuated by Bernard Butler’s sophisticated guitar stylings and none more so than on a thunderous Nathaniel filled with distortion effects.
If there’s a pervading melancholy to Ben’s lyrics, there’s also a sense of resilience and hope. Intertwining sharp truths with observations on relationships and nostalgia has been a mainstay of his writing. The latest albums have brought an added maturity and bigger themes are tenderly distilled from the minutia of life.
Continuing the set, the gentle notes of Spring bring the prospect of brighter days and dark nights receding. This gives way to echoes of Christmas past at his parents’ house, with all the joy and misunderstandings, in 25th December; another EBTG selection.
Which brings us to a dramatic finale in a Fever Dream that builds to a crescendo of sound then descends into echoing fadeouts. Ben seems almost overwhelmed by the reaction when the audience rise to their feet as the band takes its bows before leaving the stage.
The applause continues and it’s just a short time until Ben retakes the stage alone with his guitar to play North Marine Drive from his first album. New Year of Grace is accompanied by slide guitar, bowed double bass and shimmering cymbals to haunting effect. Then we reach the final song of the encore with Forget – “Some memories you deal with, but some are tough”. I’ll remember this evening of life-affirming songs and stories and superb musicianship for a long time. Thank you to Ben, Bernard, Rex and Makoto for sharing this “momentary Golden Ratio” with us.
Live Review by Helen Fairhurst. Photography by Edyta K
Ben Watt and band played at Union Chapel, London on Friday 28th October 2016.