I believe that Mark Wynn is regarded highly in the acoustic singer/songwriter scene around York but, until tonight, he hasn’t really made an impression on me. Admittedly, I have only seen him once before, in a performance I described as “downbeat”, but I do have some of his recorded material (the split album he released with Boss Caine) and can’t bring to mind a single song on it. So, while it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t looking forward to his support slot tonight, I perhaps wasn’t expecting much from it and it ended up being a bit of a revelation. Delivered at breakneck speed, with lyrics, introductions and stories chattered out like bullets from a machine-gun, the set could hardly be said to be downbeat. Initially slightly drowned out by the talkers in the audience, the mostly spoken lyrics started out reminding me of Blur’s Parklife but, peppered through with high-pitched squawks, ended up bringing to mind a sort of acoustic-punk. Occasionally coming across more like an alternative stand-up comedy act we were treated, through song, to stories about getting a bike from London to York, wanting to be a member of the New York Dolls, being a cheating song-writer (“I just write down what other people say but in a different order.”) and, appropriately for the day, the habits of race-goers. The audience seemed to laugh in all the right places and everyone seemed to be left with a smile on their face. The delivery was so manic, Wynn so wide-eyed and hyperactive, that it was only the absence of face-slapping and cowering in the corner, avoiding a stampede of imaginary bugs, that seemed to deny that he was drugged up to the eyeballs. This was a set that was edgy, experimental, different and completely unexpected and it worked brilliantly.
Quite how Henry Raby – “I make a living as a punk-poet. Which is to say I don’t earn very much.” – was to follow that, I’m not sure. If anything Wynn had taken punk-poetry to a new level with his set. However, follow it he did, popping on stage between acts to deliver poems that he had written during the acts themselves. Themes and phrases from songs were weaved into short, punchy pieces and delivered in a slightly quirky style. I felt slightly guilty at the end of the evening as I walked past Raby, selling his poems for, effectively, a few pence. To me, though, poetry has to be performed and me reading it to myself just doesn’t have the same impact.
Unlike a lot (not just Mark Wynn) of the acoustic singer/songwriters I have come across, Joe Tilston did manage to grab my attention almost from the beginning of his set. Whether it was a combination of his stage-presence (he reminded me a lot of Marcus Bonfanti) or the fact that his songs both told stories and, in some cases, struck a chord, I don’t know. Strong vocals over sparse guitar work were a feature of his opening song, with the guitar getting stronger towards the end. The “more miserable” Kings Of Industry followed the story of its inspiration. Tilston grew up around Leeds and Bradford has seen the mills of that area not only fall into disrepair but, in the case of one at the end of his street, burn down. After a more upbeat song about how best intentions are soon forgotten, we got The Railway Children – a song about growing up, inspired by the fact that Tilston grew up near to where the film of the same name was filmed. The lyrics painted a picture of the kind of idyllic childhood that my generation not only remember but also think that today’s kids don’t have, before ending on a more sombre note as time passes and past times are reflected on. “I feel more and more silly introducing this one,” declared Tilston before explaining that it was a re-written nursery rhyme but not telling us which. It soon became obvious that he had somehow cleverly managed to turn There’s A Hole In My Bucket into Liza And Henry, a song with very impassioned vocals, telling the same “story” in a different way. A more relaxed set that Wynn’s and, therefore, containing fewer songs, it was still entertaining enough to entice me to buy a copy of his album, Embers.
If there is one musical genre that I am steadily getting more interested in, it is contemporary Folk which, along with Country and Blues, forms the basis of Skylark Song’s output. The duo hail from Newcastle and, while Alex McRae was performing final tuning on his guitar, Emma Davis entertained us with observations about her fellow Geordies “invading “ York for the races, while inadvertently insulting my gig-buddy for the evening. The opening song, Buried Again, contained some lovely vocal harmonies, as calm as a mill pond, from the off. They were complemented by intricate guitar work with occasional hints of a steel sound. Added violin and something about Davis’ vocals meant that there was a more of a traditional Folk sound to Keep Wide Awake. Relent, which will be the title-track of the duo’s debut album, contained beautiful vocals over a simple but effective guitar riff, with the guitar becoming even more effective between the vocals. Devil Got My Woman is a Skip James Blues song and, while McRae’s guitar work was recognisably Blues, I though Davis’ vocals were a tad too light for the song. Davis’ violin was back, and so was the more traditional style, for Take Your Place. The set finished with both tracks from the duo’s current single. The Last Place You Said Goodbye once again featured some stunning vocal harmonies with McRae never overpowering Davis but simply adding another layer to the vocals. Another deceptively simple guitar riff features in Underneath The Roots but this time it intermingles with longer, stronger lines and the best vocals so far, ending the set brilliantly. I resisted buying the single but will definitely be keeping an eye out for the album, which is due next year.
Anybody who knows me, knows that I’m a big fan of Boss Caine. However, while the albums released so far have been performed by the musical “collective”, most of the times I have seen “Boss Caine” live, it has been Dan Lucas on his own. As far as I can remember, there have only been two occasions when he has been accompanied by a few “guest” musicians for some or all of his set. Tonight, however, sees the Boss Caine “Big Band Extravaganza” and, no, it’s nothing to do with Jazz or Swing. At the start of the set, there are nine musicians, and more instruments, on the Basement’s small stage. Even more impressive is the fact that some of the band were only introduced to each other just before tonight’s gig started. Indeed, it is testament to Dan’s standing within the musical world that some of his band have travelled across the UK to be here tonight. And what about Adam Rogowski, who flew in from Russia just the day before. Speaking to Dan earlier, I got the impression that he was slightly bewildered by the whole situation – not only was he apprehensive about how the evening would pan out, but he appeared to be a bit overwhelmed by the number of people who were turning out for the gig.
The stage may have been overcrowded, but the songs definitely weren’t. The added instruments added to the sound, without overpowering anything or being in the slightest way intrusive. Indeed, thinking back, I can barely remember Dave Keegan’s drums. Kudos to Johnny Massey who, on sound, managed to not only handle all the various inputs but made Dan’s vocals the clearest I have ever heard them. Ghosts And Drunks opened the set and was followed by A Kind Of Loving, during which the musical interludes make Dan’s most upbeat song sound even more so. Man Overboard followed and very nearly reduced me to tears. Rogowski seems to be swapping between electric and acoustic guitar after every song. There’s a big Country feel to the next song and it takes me a minute to recognise that it is Smoking In My Back Yard and bring a smile to my face. It’s one of my favourites (I’ve been running a one-man campaign to get it included on one of the upcoming albums), which shows how different the sound is, with the chorus featuring some lovely backing vocals from cellist Jennifer Chubb. “The next track appears on all three new albums, in different forms. We’ll see what form it takes tonight,” says Dan before playing Last Of The Big Time Losers, a song I don’t think I’ve heard before and which, in this form at least, should finally put Dan’s undeserved “miserablist” label to bed. “If you know the words to this one sing along, but save yourself for the finale,” Dan tells us. It’s Leaving Victoria and while I don’t sing along, I do mime away. I’m in a corner, nobody can see me… With a number of the band heading to the bar, there are just four on stage for Lady Macbeth but most, if not all are back and are joined by Martyn Fillingham (from …And The Hangnails) for the Gram Parsons tribute Righteous Angel which not only, inevitably, has a much fuller sound than I have ever heard but has much more of a Country feel which brings to mind Hazzard County. With time running out and, sadly, songs already cut from the set, the band finished with, appropriately, a song about those who live their lives on the road. There were more lovely harmonies, particularly at the very end when, in Hope & Social style, Dan invited the audience to sing along, with our refrain of “So long, so long and fare thee well” being recorded for inclusion on one of the upcoming albums.
I have seen Boss Caine, in whatever form, a number of times and always enjoy the performance. Tonight’s, however, was head and shoulders above any previous time. The set contained a number of my favourite songs and some that could, in time become new favourites. The musical arrangements and superb venue sound could only add the the enjoyment. It was a privilege to be part of a really appreciative audience of fans, friends and fellow musicians (in one glance I recognised Aimie Ryan, Angela Gordon and Robert Loxley-Hughes and I understand Chris Helme was also in attendance) and to see Dan clearly enjoying himself, even if he was worrying about how things were going. I stole a word or two with him afterwards and he still seemed overwhelmed by both how well it had gone and how many people had shared the experience.