Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect tonight. I had seen Matt Berry listed as playing in York before, but hadn’t yet ventured out. Whether that was because I hadn’t seen his music described as “prog” before, or whether previous listings had emphasised the comedy aspect of his career too much, I couldn’t say. Tonight’s gig, however, had caught my eye when I first saw it on Fibbers’ website and the fact that a colleague had also pointed it out to me as something I would enjoy was enough to tempt me out.
Xylaroo, Berry’s opening act on this tour, seemed to be a study in contrasts. London sisters Coco and Holly had a look that was slightly hip-hop and a logo – the band name inside the wide-open mouth of a cartoon face – that I found slightly off-putting, if not a little disturbing but, armed with just an acoustic guitar, dual vocals and tight harmonies, they provided a short set of pop-folk that was entrancing. They were quiet at times, lively at others and verging on angry in some moments, with the unexpected and sole drop of an f-bomb drawing a cry of mock indignation from one audience member near me. Not so much looking nervous as uncertain at the reception they would get from a mostly attentive crowd, they greeted each bout of applause and cheers with smiles. The set was mostly their own material – the likes of Sunshine and Money Is Burning (the latter seemingly about the influence of TV on our lives – but there was one cover, a glorious version of Arctic Monkeys’ I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor – during which one audience member, perhaps slightly under the influence of alcohol didn’t, but still managed to raise a few smiles from the stage and laughs from the crowd – slowed down and feminised and gradually building in pace. Between songs the chat was so quiet I could barely hear it, hence the lack of song titles. During songs the lyrics were mostly drowned out by one audience member’s chat – if he’s reading this he will know who he is and should be made aware that I don’t expect everybody to stand in silence, but to talk constantly through a set is disrespectful to those on stage and annoying to those standing around – but the overall tone was lovely.
By the time Matt Berry and his band took to the stage, to increasingly loud cheers, the already large crowd had swelled considerably, to an almost full house and I couldn’t help but wonder, given its size compared to some other prog gigs, whether some/most of the people there had come out knowing him more from his comedy. From my point of view I was only aware of him from his appearances in The IT Crowd but, because of its prominence in the what’s on listings, I think I was probably expecting some sort of comedy music act, I couldn’t have been much more wrong. It wasn’t all staid and serious – an early, good-natured mickey-take about the Yorkshire accent and Strictly Come Dancing drew laughs, as did mentions of Magic Mike and Clem Fandango, both of which went right over my head.
His music though… If I had to describe or pigeonhole “prog rock” I doubt I could, but I know what I believe fits into the genre and this was definitely it. Perhaps not as sweeping and grand as some of the more well-known entries, Berry’s music is more pastoral, more folk-y, in places more genteel but throughout definitely listenable. Opener October Sun, with its three part harmonies, from Berry, Mark Morris (The Bluetones) and folk singer Cecilia Fage brought forth another big cheer from the crowd, while the “seasonal rock opera” – which was, perhaps, shorter than that description merited – that followed saw Berry’s Korg (synthesizer, I assume) duelling with the band’s keyboard player. The sound of Devil Inside Me varied between a deep-voiced Western soundtrack and something much more light-hearted. The next track wasn’t named but Berry advised us to “grab hold of your nether-regions, because that’s what I’m aiming for.” An instrumental during which Korg and Fage’s clarinet built quickly, then merged with the trombone that the keyboard player had taken up, leading to a track that was “parp-y” in the background and almost space-y in the fore, a wall of sound that may not have reached those nether regions, but certainly had my trouser legs twitching before it faded away, leaving just the clarinet to bring it to a close.
In comparison Medicine seemed more mainstream, a slice of guitar-pop with a keyboard backing. Berry switched to lead guitar, partnering with the trombone for a brief burst of La Bamba before the atmospheric opening of Solstice built slowly into a powerful guitar-led track, with occasional wordless vocals from Fage, that lasted for the shortest nine minutes I can remember experiencing. The piano driven Take My Hand was followed by a magical instrumental from Music For Insomniacs, which convinced me that I would be buying that album on my way out of the venue. An album comprising just two twenty-three minute instrumental tracks… just how much more prog could it be?? “Stay back,” Berry quipped as he struggled to get the Korg stand to stay securely in place at the denouement of the track. The trombone/guitar duel during Snuff Box was bizarre but strangely satisfying and it was followed by a spotlight section for each band member, starting with a bass solo that started out as funky as you like and ended up as far from funky as you could get, the bassist wandering backwards and forwards to his pedals, then a drum solo with added cow-bell and ending with a fleet-fingered keyboard/synthesizer duet and vocal section that was heavy on the reverb. Each section seemed to bring forth louder appreciation from the audience.
Woman had a hint of sixties pop crooner to its sound, apart from a guitar solo, with Berry jokingly introducing the guitarist as Eric Clapton. (If the members of the band, apart from Morris and Fage, were introduced, it must have been too quickly for me to note down their names – apologies to them). The set was brought to a finale by So Low, with its bass opening and it wasn’t long before the band were back on for an encore of The Pheasant, the announcement of which was greeted by another cheer. Its short lyrical opening section led into another instrumental, slow then lively and incredibly changeable throughout. Finally, the whole evening was brought to a close by Morris on vocals – “Two gigs for the price of one,” explained Berry – for a rendition of perhaps that most mainstream of prog tracks, Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer.
As much as I like prog in general, Berry’s music is just different enough to be a breathe of fresh air in a genre that continues to surprise me and I will definitely be looking out for him appearing in York again.