Live review: Songwriting Live, Bristol (29 July ’14)
Five of the southwest’s finest singer-songwriters recently gathered in Clifton’s Fringe Bar to play Songwriting Live – our monthly acoustic showcase
eturning once again to the familiar surroundings of The Fringe Bar’s backroom venue, with the midsummer evening sun still lingering in the sky, our Songwriting Live night appeared to be business as usual. Regulars set up, new performers soundchecked and members of another relaxed audience filed sedately in and took their seats. But something was different – the room was darker than usual. It wasn’t long before we realised that our stage lights weren’t working. The show must go on! And so, undeterred, we continued and our host and compere Sarah Ménage kicked off proceedings.
Also opening the performances, Sarah boldly sang a song called Rabbie in an attempted Scottish accent, prefacing the performance with, “If there are any Scots in the audience I apologise!” The piano-led opener started promisingly, but sadly came to an abrupt end when Sarah forgot how it went. But not one to be dwell on the matter, she jumped straight into another song entitled They Fuck You Up – inspired by the Philip Larkin poem ‘This Be The Verse’, where Sarah uses her witty lyricism to turn the blame from the parents to their offspring. It was a beautifully cinematic ballad accompanied by a reverb-drenched piano where Sarah’s love of uncensored word-play shines through.
And so the night had begun, but if anyone had any doubts whether the evening could offer up some surprises, they could think again when Stevie-Jo took to the stage. Wielding a multi-effected, overdriven, electric bass guitar that grunted and snarled into life, this unassuming 19-year-old girl from Bath produced an exciting experimental sound that had the room enthralled and mystified in equal measures. Taking her cues from Radiohead and Talking Heads, we ultimately discover that Stevie-Jo had studied classical jazz, and so her canny ability to walk the tightrope between raw punk and considered musicianship was achieved by design, not by chance. Stevie-Jo’s three songs rattled past in a brief frenzy of fuzz bass and controlled falsetto, from the teenage angst of opening song Diva (simply about “getting angry”), through an almost Muse-like Immortal to a Primus-inflected Horizontal – all delivered with a wild and engaging stage-presence.
Next up was Dan Monks, who brought things back down to more sedate pace. Dan was keen to admit he was nervous, as he’d not played for a while, but it was soon clear this Bristol-based singer-songwriter had nothing to be nervous about. His folk-tinged classically-trained voice soared confidently with the raw emotion of Jeff Buckley above some intricate finger-picking and interesting song structure. Lyrically too, the three songs had strength, covering complex themes from a haunting murder ballad, tackling depression in Boiling Point, and reflecting Dan’s interest in the history of World War I in Sarajevo.
It was then time for Sarah, Stevie-Jo and Dan to all get back onto the stage for the night’s first round of Q’s & A’s, which saw the audience itching to fire both questions and compliments stage-ward. The intrigue of Stevie-Jo’s brief but volatile set had clearly provoked curiosity from some audience members and so she was asked about her background, favourite emotion (to write from) and her songwriting process generally. However, it was Dan’s answers which were most revealing, where we discovered about his earlier years in the choir and how he’d faked his voice breaking in order to get out of it!
After a brief half-time break, it was the turn of the evening’s co-host Pete Brandt to step up to perform. This being the seventh Songwriting Live event that Pete has appeared at, we’d come to expect a certain level of hilarity and surrealism, but tonight we saw his serious emotive songwriting come to the fore. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Pete started with The Month Of May, a song from his first album, that chugged along in the fashion of Lou Reed or Tom Petty. Then, re-tuning his guitar, he sang a musical travelogue about going on a roadtrip across Canada to find himself after a divorce (Prairie Moon), before showcasing a completely new song called I Must Be Already Dead – inspired by the psychic leanings from a friend’s son passing away. It made for a moving account and an example of the strength of songwriting to help make sense of highly emotional episodes.
Picking the tone back up to more cheerful subject matter, along came Hilary Pavey, a local musician and songwriting coach. Especially when it came to interesting rhyming couplets and schemes, Hilary’s experience and enthusiasm for writing shone through. With tinges of 70s folk singers like Eva Cassidy and Joni Mitchell, Hilary had the floor enthralled through three superb songs: The Secret Millionaire (inspired by the Channel 4 documentary of the same name), the cleverly crafted lyric of How Small I Am and The Last Bus Home, documenting a journey of self-discovery in a camper van, affectionately named Colonel Mustard.
Last but not least came Sam Eason stepped up onto the stage and justified his slot as effectively our ‘headline’ act of the evening. With an impressive pop ‘recording’ voice, intricate finger-picking guitar style and some toe-tappingly catchy melodies, Sam looked the part and at ease singing about “coming out of the other side of a dark place” in the brooding Leave The Dark Low and the mature pop of I Would Love. But then, just as Sam’s performance appeared to slot into the crop of male solo acoustic singer-songwriters like Ed Sheeran and James Morrison, he surprised us all by inviting his wife Beth to join him on stage. Performing an anthemic ballad called Across The Sky, the couple sang in glorious harmony and suddenly the Sam Eason experience turned into something more akin to The Magic Numbers or Mamas & Papas.
The second question and answer session finished off the evening’s entertainment and, although a few insights into songwriting processes were revealed from Pete, Hilary and Sam, it appeared the audience were more keen to get to know the performers. Pete talked about being taught the mechanics of open tunings, which all agreed produced some “pretty sounds” from the guitar. Sam explained how he’d been performing for 10 years and, although he and Beth sang beautifully in unison, they didn’t write songs together. Hilary had always wanted to sing as a kid, inspired by the likes of Janis Ian and Joni Mitchell, and she wrote her first song at the tender of age of four years old – she could even remember it now and gave us a brief rendition.
And so our seventh Songwriting Live came to end and despite having no stage lighting, the evening was yet another intimate, stripped-back and honest affair that left the room enlightened metaphorically, if not literally.
Words: Aaron Slater 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