I don’t think I’ve ever heard an act introduce themselves in song before. With the lyric “Oh, my name is Zak and I’m here to sing a song for you” Zak Ford succinctly and light-heartedly, if slightly inaccurately in numerical terms, summed up his role as tonight’s support act. A relative newcomer to York’s acoustic scene, he is tonight joined by Jen on cello and backing vocals, adding a pleasing twist to an increasingly crowded genre. Despite a tendency to slide along the stage the cello, at times plucked, at others played with the bow, added depth to the music, occasionally verging on adding a bass line and during one song almost sounding as though it was singing backing vocals as well. Jen’s own backing vocals were used in unusual, but not unpleasant way. Zak’s vocals are wide-ranging and emotive, as are his songs which are a mix of folk, Americana and acoustic rock. After the fast-paced opener and Heartbreakers, he slowed things down with Hold The Line and My Love before speeding things up again with When I Was Young. Feel was preceded with an extract from Attack Attack, one of the songs written for his other project, the heavy rock band River City Ransom while the set ended with an indication of one of his influences, a cover of Ryan Adams’ Two, a full-on duet and the only song not to feature the cello. A nice opening to tonight’s proceedings.
With the unusually bare stage stripped even further, leaving just a microphone stand and a chair (actually acting as a table) Toby Jepson arrived. There have been three previous York appearances scheduled over the past couple of years and I’ve not managed to catch any of them. To be fair, at least one was cancelled (another clashed with my birthday and the third with an already-planned night out for Debbie, although I think that one was eventually postponed as well). Given the previous day’s snow, tonight’s appearance was quite lucky to go ahead. “I looked out of the window and thought I’d have to put another message on Facebook,” he quipped as he thanked us for turning out. I had seen Toby a couple of times before when he fronted Gun but knew nothing of his solo output (two albums and four EPs) and, it turns out, very little of his work with Little Angels. Indeed, it wasn’t until the last song of the set – Too Much Too Young – that anything sounded even vaguely familiar to either me or Andy.
Despite his hard-rock roots, Toby’s solo gigs are acoustic. The immediate comparison that came to mind was a combination of the performance of Bryan Adams (from the mainstream) and the audience intimacy of Nick Harper (from slightly left-field). The twenty song set comprised of a mix of songs from his solo career and Little Angels, covering almost the entire history of both. Few songs were introduced, but the audience was full of dedicated fans who seemed to know each one and were quite prepared to join in with the sing-along sections. Thankfully, the vocals were so clear that I managed to identify all but two songs from lyrics I noted down. One of those two, a ballad, something about wrapping “her up in passionate arms” and introduced as “see if you remember this one” (I didn’t) was my favourite of the set, but I can’t work out what it is. There were occasional insights – My Aim Is True was being performed live for the first time, Forbidden Fruit is his favourite song, there are plans to tour with a set of some of the more obscure Little Angels songs – and flashes of humour – roadie Nigel being almost as popular with the audience as Toby himself, mention of an upcoming slot for the re-formed Little Angels with Bon Jovi at the Isle Of Wight festival leading to him poking fun at Jon Bon Jovi’s recent appearance on the BBC. As is probably obvious, most of the set was acoustic re-workings of the original rock versions, but Unfortunate Man, an anti-Death Row song written after seeing a documentary about a prisoner who was exonerated after being put to death, had more of a country feel to it. Perhaps most surprising was Just No Way To Stop Loving You. Not the song itself, which was written just after Little Angels originally split up, but the fact that it will be appearing on a forthcoming album from former Superbike champion James Toseland, which Toby is producing. A consummate performer with a great voice. Well worth seeing live and, hopefully, I will get the opportunity again.