Drew Williams checks out the former Buzzin’ Fly boss’ new band in regal form in Manchester.
Last updated: 9th Jun 2016
Image: Ben Watt
Ben Watt’s latest releases; 2014’s acclaimed Hendra and this year’s follow-up Fever Dream, arrived in quick succession thirty one belated years after his debut album North Marine Drive. Now, with two new releases in as many years – and fresh music promised during a quick conversation after the show – it looks like the mature storyteller, whose focus has been diverted by other musical projects, will become a more-prolific recording artist.
Making another album so soon after Hendra is, apart from his everlasting desire to create and perform, a sign that he’s invigorated by the harmonious working relationships formed with his new ensemble who’ve helped shape the best work of his career. Addressing the crowd between songs, Watt was notably gracious that he can tour with the same superbly-talented musicians he recorded the new album with.
They make up mercurial talent Bernard Butler, guitar legend of Suede fame who has revitalised Watt’s creative output; bearded Australian cello player Rex Horan who has previously toured with folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling; and drummer / percussionist Martin Ditcham who’s played with a whole host of artists as a session musician, including Elton John and The Rolling Stones.
On-stage, he was as pensive as ever. The heart-breaking introduction to the album’s title track left the hushed room in a reflective mood. He then chose to revisit ‘Some Things Don’t Matter’ (above), recorded when he was 19 years old for the Pillows & Prayers compilation – a release that changed everything for him and his wife Tracy in 1982.
He also covered 1992 single ‘Amplified Heart’, written for Tracy to perform and released under the Everything but the Girl guise (the band the couple formed in 1982 that went on to release nine albums in sixteen years). It was perhaps one of the more upbeat moments with its repeated hooks and poppier sensibilities.
Fans will know that since ‘92, Watt has suffered a life-threatening illness, disappeared into the musical wilderness, managed his Buzzin’ Fly record label, and DJed all around the world, only to come back stronger. Now aged 53. After meeting Butler – who was between producing projects and looking to perform live again – at a mutual friend’s barbecue, Watt has gone on to surround himself with top-class talent to bring his beautiful songs to life, and then go on the road with him.
The storming ‘Nathaniel’ (above) was re-imagined as a seven-minute stomper, with Butler’s guitar licks, Horan’s infectious basslines (at this point he had switched from his colossal cello to a beautiful Fender bass) and the tumultuous drums from the rear of the stage. Once the energy died down, it was rounded off with timely dig at Chris Martin, whose band were playing in less-intimate surroundings across town.
Forget stadium shows. On the smaller stage Watt and Butler’s musical craft and stage-assuredness is undeniably admirable. The two of them appear totally at ease and despite the sentiments of ‘Young Man’s Game’ earlier in the night: “One more chance to leave a mark”, about getting on a bit, the two of them are still it seems, living the dream. Especially with their upcoming US tour and ever-increasing status as gems of the UK music scene.
The gig was the final act of a sweltering early-summer weekend that had the band hop from Primavera in Barcelona to The North, and that saw Deaf Institute’s top-floor room doused in red light under a ginormous glittering disco ball.
Watt doesn’t shy away from age in any of his music. In fact, it’s his level-headed tales of thatched cottages, winding country lanes and long walks in the rolling-fields of Sussex and Cornwall, that’ll have nudged him back gently into the limelight.
He recites moments as though he has a photographic memory, while the pain is written all over his face whether he’s stood playing guitar, or sat hunched over the keys. All the while, Butler, dressed sharply as usual, noodles away filling the gaps with delicious sounds from his array of handsome guitars.
After a comically short break, the two-song encore began with ‘New Year of Grace’, the closer on Fever Dream, but performed without the absent Marissa Nadler. It led into a rendition of ‘Forget’. In many ways the closer is the epitome of Watt’s solo work; subtle storytelling that’s true to midlife and a breath of real English country fresh air, backed with the sparse and emotional twangs of Butler’s guitar.
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