The stage tonight, bereft of the usual array of amplifiers, electronics, guitars and drum kit, looked bare. A double bass, lying on its side amongst a handful of cables and two microphone stands, cut a lonely figure until Unfinished Drawings – Toby Burras on guitar and vocals and Matthew Mefford on said double bass – walked on. The pair faced the scourge of support bands – a crowd around the bar and few people in front of the stage – and Toby, opening tonight for his musical hero (which might go some way to explaining why he was dressed smarter than I had ever seen him before, although still topped off by his usual shapeless hat) urged the audience not to be sheep at the back and to move forward, a request that, to start with at least, seemed to be in vain. Then he started playing and, with Matthew backing him, his sparse guitar work of I Could See It, punctuated by sharp percussion on the body of the guitar seemed to not only draw people into the middle but also prompted a noticeable drop in crowd noise. By the time the duo’s second track, the musically and vocally dreamy Today, the applause was getting louder and more sustained. Ciara Star, the first song Toby wrote in he style of tonight’s headliner, saw all manner of musical tricks appreciated by the largely attentive audience and, once again, the applause was louder and, this time, accompanied by cheers. The final wholly acoustic song of the set, written by Toby for his “lovely lady” was simpler and beautiful and again the appreciation for it increased in volume. I have to say, I preferred those songs to the last two, which were accompanied by a backing track of beats put together during a period of illness, but I seemed to be in a minority. Mistakes saw Matthew playing the bass more like a cello, the track’s slow and subtle beat eventually bursting into energetic life and Toby playing guitar in a much more traditional style than he usually does. The set was brought to a climax with a more complex beat matched by more complex guitar work, a seemingly short track which continued after Toby thanked the crowd and wished us all a good evening. He had certainly provided a good start to it and, I suspect, Unfinished Drawings gained more than a few fans amongst those who were fortunate enough to turn up in time to see their set.
There’s no doubt that Jon Gomm is a genius on the guitar – in his case, Wilma, a slightly battered looking instrument that he apologises for forgetting to introduce early in his set – but he is also an entertainer. His set tonight was very similar to the last (and first) time I saw and was blown away by him eighteen months ago, but that didn’t matter in the slightest. Hooded and barefoot, he arrived on stage to barely a whisper from a crowd which the simple act of the roadie moving a microphone stand more central on the stage had caused to move closer to the stage. As with last time, there was barely any traditional guitar playing and, as before, he took time out halfway through the set to explain, and show, how he builds up the various instrument noises he teases from his guitar. A slap for the kick drum, taps and flicks for the snare and hi hat, banging the strings for bass and various plucking and strumming for the guitar itself. Not only that but with his fingers moving up and down the strings, at times seemingly caressing them, there are occasions when he appears to be be playing different tunes with each hand. It is mesmerising, awe-inspiring and at times jaw-dropping stuff.
A quick, early straw poll of the audience seemed to indicate that the majority of us were seeing Jon for the first time, which led him to introduce many of his tracks with stories I had heard before. Again, it didn’t matter. His delivery is superbly self-deprecating and those stories are very funny. Gloria, we are told, is about his first girlfriend. “She was a chav, I was a mosher.” It’s a Country song and a waltz, a combination that fits so well you wonder why more people don’t use it. During it, judicious use of pedals draw an electric sound from the acoustic Wilma. Having already explained that he had recently been ill and asking that we be patient in the hope that “something good will happen,” he next tells us that the Chinese uprising inspired instrumental Wukan Motorcycle Kid is, “f*cking impossible to play, so I might f*ck it up.” As far as I can tell, he didn’t. Even while explaining that Telepathy is about the darker side of his own bi-polar disorder he has the crowd laughing, even more so when, after telling us that he isn’t Thom Yorke, he quips off microphone, “I f*cking wish…”. Deep Sea Fishes was written as an antidote to the darkness of telepathy. I rambling introduction about how it is a love song inspired by a documentary about the strange creatures found in the very deepest parts of the oceans is ended by a request that it not be filmed as he doesn’t want to find it all over YouTube.
When the audience were asked whether they had any requests, somebody shouted Come Together, a song Jon said he hadn’t played in years and wasn’t going to tonight. Two shouts for Passionflower prompted him to explain shouting it multiple times isn’t going to make it happen. I’m fairly sure most people would have known it was coming anyway. Deciding to go with the next three titles he heard shouted out, he played his “emergency disco song”, an instrumental version of Chaka Kahn’s Ain’t Nobody that dates back to when he was a fifteen year old playing venues in Blackpool and getting shouts of, “play something we know” and, more worryingly, “play something you know…” Next came Everything, which Jon described as “quite proggy funk rock”, its ten minute length included a snatch of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. Having earlier explained that all of his songs were played with a different tuning on the guitar, which explained why he had to re-tune between every song – “for anybody thinking of doing that, take my advice. Don’t. It’s f*cking stupid…” – he announced that Hey Child was in standard tuning and that he could, therefore, play anything now, demonstrating with a short instrumental section before the song proper, its almost angry sound helped by the use of a “rock” pedal.
And then came Passionflower. “This is my hit,” was the only introduction needed – the song has had over eight million views on YouTube. The track’s quiet opening turned quite a few heads in the audience, sadly in the wrong direction as they swivelled to try to work out why it sounded as though somebody was vacuuming behind the bar, more than slightly ironic after Jon, a few minutes, earlier had passionately explained how small venues should be supported for the good work they do promoting live music. When the background noise finally died out the crowd could once again concentrate on the stage and the end of the song was greeted by the biggest cheers of the evening. “There’s one more thing I want to do before I go,” Jon told us and, after a rant about TV “singing contests” invited us, no matter how well or badly, to sing along to his version of Bob Marley’s Waiting In Vain. This final track of the evening saw Jon come off stage to perform in the middle of the audience, a handful of whom actually got on stage in order to get a better view as he and those around him repeated the chorus, getting quieter and quieter until just one person was left singing. Whether that person ended up getting the promised free CD, I don’t know. I do know, though, that I hope it isn’t another eighteen months before Jon graces us with his music again.