Live review: Songwriting Live, Bristol (28 October ’14)
Our series of regular songwriter showcases and Q&A sessions continues in the intimate surroundings of The Fringe Bar in Bristol
ather like many cities across the British Isles, Bristol is a veritable patchwork quilt of different areas, all with their own communities and distinctive music venues. If Clifton Village is its proverbial snug of our home, then The Fringe is the favourite armchair next to the fire. The venue’s modest back-room filled with songwriters, and acoustic music fans in the intimate surroundings, the lights dimmed and a hush descended…
Picking up his acoustic guitar and kicking us off was regular performer and co-host Andy Davis but not before Sarah had enlightened the audience with a glowing introduction. As a core member of the South West’s own 70s prog folk stalwarts Stackridge, Andy has the unique claim of playing the first note at the first ever Glastonbury Festival. And if that wasn’t enough, Sarah was able to reel-off a string of names that he’d worked with, including John Lennon, Goldfrapp, The Korgis and Tears For Fears. So with expectations suitably raised, Andy started with the Dylan-esque Baby Good For You, which he admitted he didn’t know what it was about, before playing Sweetheart which finished with a sing-a-long style refrain reminiscent of The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Andy then detuned the guitar ready for a song he hadn’t played for a long time, called Hunger that was co-written with one of our previous hosts, Pete Brandt. Pairing some exotic chord changes with a particularly lugubrious lyrics, he apologetically signed off with “I should’ve warned you that’s a very miserable song.”
Then it was the turn of another local talent in the form of Jo McNab, who performs under the stage-name Jocasta. As the child of harmony group Sweet Substitute’s Kate McNab and renowned session guitarist Kit Morgan (Massive Attack, LuLu, Ian Anderson), it should’ve come as no surprise that Jocasta is a fantastic singer-songwriter, but the audience was clearly in awe of her vocal performance. With a husky, Celtic tone and plenty of power in her voice, Jocasta started with a song called You Are Here, followed by a folky number called Someone Like You (not an Adele cover) that required some “rustic detuning, adds to the authenticity” and then finished with Walk Away. She wondered aloud whether her guitar was tuned properly, but audience didn’t care and someone shouted out, “Sounds good to me!“ And with some more smokey vocal acrobatics and excellent mic technique, Jocasta finished a sublime set.
Our third act of the evening, Andy Nowak, proved to be a fascinating individual, declaring he had “at least two personas” – one of a classically-trained jazz pianist and composer, and the other as a folk-inspired singer-songwriter – but it was clear which persona had arrived tonight! With a softly spoken voice and a quietly confident manner, Andy serenaded a reverent Songwriting Live audience with three earthy acoustic songs that bridged the gap between Damien Rice and Jack Johnson. Songs like Still Standing Still and If I Only Knew were delicately picked out on acoustic guitar, while some evocative lyrics packed with imagery and colour flowed beautifully over the top. We don’t know how good Andy’s jazz trio is but we hope that he keeps the folky songwriter persona alive.
This brought us to the end of the first half of performances and it was time for a Q&A session with Andy Davis, Jocasta and Andy Nowak taking questions from the audience. Topics of discussion ranged from how Andy Nowak’s approach to jazz influences his songwriting and how the other acts are influenced, to co-writing and how awkward, as well as productive, the process can be. Jo went on to reveal she’d been told to collaborate, which Andy Davis found surprising and went on to tell a humorous anecdote about sunbathing with Bob Dylan. The Q&A session finished on a heated conversation about publishers, the internet and the future of music generally. It was great to see both the acts and the audience equally as passionate about songwriting.
After the mid-evening break, it was our host Sarah Ménage to introduce herself to the stage. This month Sarah chose to start with an old song she’d wrote in her 20s, at a time when she “didn’t get repetition”, but she forgot the words early on and quickly switched to another song. Next came Don’t Go Running Out On Me, a song that she “wrote a long time ago as well”, but admitted that it would’ve made more sense to have written it now, as it theme was about running out of time. Sarah finished on a typically hilarious note with I Want A Willy, a song which is beautifully crafted and had the audience sniggering with amusement from the opening couplet onwards – “I wanna wee in the grass/ I want to climb the trees/ I wanna scratch my arse/ I wanna make a hole in my knees”.
Next up came Liam O’Connell, a talented guitarist who injected plenty of energy into his performance. Combining elements of grunge rock, along the lines of say Eddie Vedder, with wild lyrical themes and a theatrical vocal style, Liam took us on an emotional roller-coaster from Writing In The Dark, the first love song he’d written (described as an “anti-love” song), through to a psychedelic tale of drug-taking with Scalded Like A Child. It was a fascinatingly eclectic set with hints of Latin spirit and even Middle Eastern tones at times, and he clearly relished taking the audience on a journey through his psyche and colourful experiences.
Armed with a striking resonator guitar, our final performer of the evening, Hazel Winter made an immediate impression with a no-nonsense punk style which grabbed the audience’s attention by the proverbial balls. But it was Hazel’s honesty and well-crafted comic lyricism that meant she left a lasting impression, accompanying her stripped-bare, driving blues guitar playing with an almost spoken poetic delivery in the vein of John Cooper Clarke. The best example of Hazel’s clever word-play and songwriting skill arrived with the song inspired by Dolly Parton’s Jolene with the chorus line replaced by codeine – telling the painful story of an unsuccessful trip to the dentist. Aptly ending with a song called Dusting For Prints, which included the line “You don’t fucking love me”, Hazel finished her set with intensity and closed the evening’s musical delights with a bang.
Luckily there was time for another Q&A session to get thoughts of Hazel Winter, Liam O’Connell and Sarah Ménage on songwriting. Hazel started by talking a bit more about how she’d been running an informal songwriting workshop for children which involved them being “deposited” in her living room and had ended up writing a song about not liking pandas. Other questions prompted a discussion on ‘why we songwriter’ and all three of the performers agreed that they’re either compelled to write music or that it was a cathartic process. Liam went further and said that it was about “paying respect” and that a song can be a homage to a moment in life.
And with that, a suitably inspired and energised audience stepped out into the autumn night, leaving the Songwriting Live organisers, hosts and performers to pack up and reflect on what was undoubtedly another successful event. And it just keeps getting better every month!
Words & photos: Aaron Slater
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