Live review: Songwriting Live, Bristol (27 May ’14)
Our series of showcase gigs featuring songwriting talent from across the southwest (and beyond, if you wanna come play?) continues
ith the second of May’s two bank holidays having just passed, the mood prior to the fifth Songwriting Live event was as bright as the mid-spring eve. It was then the perfect setting for another evening, devoted to the performances of seven talented songwriters. Joining our hosts Pete, Andy and Sarah this time around were Jim Reynolds, Pete Atkin, Danielle Celeste and Paul Bradley.
After a quick re-tune, Songwriting Live stalwart Pete Brandt kicked off proceedings with Once Upon A Time. Inspired by his interest in the Book of Genesis and whether “God is a genius or a beardy weirdy”, the song was another witty take on the big issues. After that was a folk number that touched on the vapidity of advertising and featured acerbic lines such as, “No matter how attractive the package is, you just can’t polish a turd”. Pete closed his set with a ‘naked’ version of Ships In The Night, a song that might have sat happily alongside the outtakes for The White Album.
Next up was Jim Reynolds. A purveyor of folk loveliness in the vein of Nick Drake and John Martyn, his songs would provide a fitting backdrop to a Richard Curtis film. Opener Please Don’t Walk Around In My Head, took the subject of psychoanalysis as its topic and sat in the same musical arena as the work of Ray Davies. The Damien Rice-esque Where Do We Go then pondered the issue of the afterlife, before the heartbreaking closer Alfreda reduced some audience members to tears.
Andy Davis then took the stage and treated the crowd to another three gems from his back catalogue. The Final Bow’s twisting melodies bore reference to Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree. Andy confessed though that the song’s subject matter was harder to pin down, stating, ‘there is a point to the song but I’m not sure what it is’. This was followed by a ‘soppy country song’ that Andy wrote in Nashville, before closing his set with Rain, Rain, Rain.
After that, it was the turn of Danielle Celeste to regale the audience. With her breathy vocals and compelling stage presence, she brought to mind the work of the excellent Kate Rusby. Stay Awhile could have slipped seamlessly from Rusby’s canon of aching folk, while her closer Box Of Memories took the same topic of fractured love that has inspired many a writer. Sandwiched between these two was the sublime This Could Be, which had the feel of early 90s alt-folk act Blind Melon and saw Celeste’s vocal echoing Jena Kraus.
As the final melodies settled against the floor, it was time for the first Q&A session of the evening. The four performers fielded a series of questions, including whether they wrote to a timetable in the manner adopted in Nashville. Danielle advised that she couldn’t write in that way, with her best songs being ‘the ones that just happen’. Andy then went on to explain that the Nashville songwriters reject any weakness in their protagonists, stating ‘they don’t have wimps in their songs’. He continued by saying that even the topic of broken heart, is written from a position of strength; ‘you don’t love me but I can get by without you’.
Opening the second half of the evening was our third host Sarah Ménage. With another three songs of droll satire and melancholic melodies, she once again had the audience enchanted. Among her songs was Teeth & Tits – a musing on how women are perceived and presented – and a Rufus Wainwright-esque number. Sarah closed with a gloomy blues song, that offered the lyrics “thank you for the blues, typical of you to give me something I’m never gonna lose, I’m never gonna lose to you”.
Sarah was followed by Pete Atkin, a Clive James collaborating pianosmith, whose partnership came after he’d met Clive at university. Pete explained that their songwriting union came together because both he and Clive were fascinated by the combination of words and music.
The first of these combinations to be played was Touch Has A Memory, which Pete revealed to be “a song about sex”, with a lyric that stressed “smell is a much stronger trigger for memory”. Canoe was then explained to be an example of Clive’s joy of writing in character and Pete’s own need to get the tempo of the song right. Pete confessed that the aforementioned tempo had been pinched from the Beach Boys’ Sail On Surf Sun. He ended with 30 Year Man, a song about a piano player whose title was drawn from the longest period of time one could enlist in the US army for.
The evening’s finale was the deliciously irrepressible – and incomparable – Paul Bradley. Paul explained that his compositions did not follow the traditional songwriting structure of his predecessors. His words were: “I don’t write songs, I make them up off the cuff”. True to his words, he then treated the audience to a song “so new it doesn’t even exist yet”. Starting on the acoustic guitar and moving to the piano, Paul’s was a set that explored the ability of a writer to work from his surroundings and claw inspiration from within. Playing just one song, he took the audience through waves of emotions and sentiments and had them wondering where his melodies would go next. It was certainly inspirational.
Then it was over to the final round of Q&A’s. Paul, Sarah and Pete were asked if any of them wrote anything down physically. Taking on one of the long held views of songwriting, that if an idea is good enough it will stick, Paul was clear in his view. “It’s thought that if an idea is good enough then you’ll remember it, but that isn’t actually true. You have to work at the retention of ideas”. He went on to talk about repetition, stating “it’s used because it’s a useful device; it helps to give shape to a song and helps the listeners to stay interested”. Pete also spoke about writer’s block, stating: “If a writer doesn’t write a book for two years, is he no longer a novelist? No. You’re always a songwriter, no matter how long the gap between your songs”.
With that the fifth Songwriting Live drew to a close. Yet another supremely successful evening and another that saw interesting dissections of the art of songwriting and more superb performances. Bring on round six.
Words: Damien Girling Photos: Tessa Beeching
If you’d like to perform at a Songwriting Live event in Bristol – or if you’d be interested in hosting Songwriting Live in your own town – then send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org