Sheffield's finest is not amused with Belfast's indifference – and produces a late contender for gig of the year in response
‘Alright, Belfast,’ snarls Richard Hawley, resplendent in Elvis Comeback Special-era bomber jacket and jeans. ’Let’s ’ave it!'
Belfast isn’t ‘aving it though. Like the punks and the ravers before them, the Britpop kids have suddenly found themselves mortgaged and kidded up… and it’s a school night. There’s a full house, but half the eyes are on watches and phones, worrying about relieving the baby sitter, or an early start at the office.
‘C’mon! ‘Ave it!’ Hawley repeats, clearly put out at the lack of enthusiasm. Thankfully there’s a bit more of a response this time, and he launches into surely one of the most compelling and hypnotic gigs the Mandela Hall has ever witnessed.
The epic title track to the 2012 album Standing at the Sky’s Edge sets the scene for the rest of the set: a gigantic, threatening musical bombardment that showcases Hawley’s expressive baritone and virtuoso guitar skills.
His music recalls the Verve’s early Storm in Heaven material, a heady psychedelic hum owing as much to Fleetwood Mac as My Bloody Valentine. It’s a dark ride he’s taking us on, without any hint of pretension. Hawley's down to earth, man of the people persona has been extremely successful, and he's never far from a joke or anecdote, downing glasses of red wine as he goes.
‘There’s a lot of very wealthy people here,’ he observes, making the money sign with his fingers, 'who can pay for a gig ticket and then talk all the way through it,' nailing the curse of the Mandela Hall on the head. The hint is taken and the crowd reverentially lets a sublime 'Don’t Stare at the Sun' wash over them, complete with lush slide guitar and a barnstorming solo.
It’s a credit to Hawley and his guitar slinger crew that they can make such intricate and technical guitar work transcend the noodling distractions of Vai or Satriani. He’s undoubtedly one of the great players of our time, yet you’ll never see Hawley's face on the cover of a magazine, or gracing a chat show sofa.
And the song writing stands up as well, from the Stooges stomp of 'Down in the Woods' (a loving homage to Fun House’s '1969') to the tender lounge of 'Seek It', to the sort of Northern outcast pop that Jarvis Cocker or Morrissey would be proud of ('Tonight the Streets are Ours', for example).
There’s something undoubtedly classy about the man’s work. It’s (ahem) mature and tender, reflecting the artist, crooning in a voice that’s easy to lose yourself in, a heady treat that recalls Nick Cave at his most introspective.
After the customary break, the band return for an encore that a restless audience clearly don’t deserve. 'The Ocean' is an ode to love and contentment and brings the gig to a near perfect end, as couples sway in time at the edges and lose themselves in the music. Here it’s like a lost Scott Walker classic, capturing some of the reclusive Ohioan’s bruised splendour and widescreen sweep.
As Hawley lets us into his world, I can't help but think it’s a dark and delicious start to the December party season. Hawley's presence is not necessarily the most comfortable place to be – it’s not really all that safe, but boy is it appealing. Surely a contender for gig of the year.