EVERYTHING BUT THE MYTH: BEN WATT LIVE

EVERYTHING BUT THE MYTH: BEN WATT LIVE

Ben Watt, you’ll remember him as the man stood behind Tracey Thorn in Everything But The Girl, is enjoying a career renaissance. Two albums in just over two years, both recorded with Bernard Butler shining in the role of guitar hero once again, have seen his songwriting stock shoot higher than it’s been for years. Him and his brilliant band were in town last night… and their understated, but underrated, performance got us thinking. By Alan O’Hare.

Musicians getting older is a funny thing. For the sake of clarity and concision, let’s say that rock ‘n’ roll, as we know it, has captured the imaginations of young people since a few years after World War II. Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, Elvis Presley, Wanda Jackson, Billy Fury, Joe Brown, Lonnie Donegan… The Beatles. All that. Now, let’s also consider the outpouring of grief that followed the death of David Bowie earlier in 2016. Sure, the baby boomers and their ilk took it badly, but so did the rest of us.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s successful second generation – the one that redefined the charts, sold out stadiums and made movies – is dying out: half The Who, half The Beatles, Bowie… and so it goes. We’re so scared of our heroes snapping that fatal last string, that 100,000 of us have spent £100m (or something) to sell out the upcoming Desert Trip Festival in seconds, to stand in, well, the desert and watch Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Who, Roger Waters and The Rolling Stones perform together over one weekend in California.

I was thinking about none of this last night as I stood and watched Ben Watt play Seel Street’s Arts Club loft. But I was feeling all of it. It was a gig for adults, you see, music for grown-ups, played in front of grown-ups and lacking in any kind of exuberance at all. Apart from in the playing of the music.. which was brilliant. The crowd stood still, applauded politely at the end of each tune and settled in silence between songs. It wasn’t a hushed reverence, either… just silence. And it got me musing on the rock ‘n’ roll myth of danger: does it have to be present for a gig to truly be great?

The only danger present last night was a fear of Bernard Butler snapping a string. The ex-Suede guitarist, Watt’s second-in-command these days, played a blinder and brought six string colour, nuance and electrical storms to the singer’s widescreen laments. Watt is a songwriter’s songwriter – that he played with the likes of Robert Wyatt and Paul Weller back in his formative years has never been more apparent: here is a craftsmen who turns every chord change into an event, every meandering melody into a left turn off the beaten track and every instrumental passage into a drive into the knowing unknown. Stood up straight, with his Guild guitar and cap, a Scouser can’t help but think of Michael Head… Watt certainly shares a space with the ex-Shack man and his jazz-tinged, strings-bent rock walks the same crooked line as Head’s. Tunes like ‘Nathaniel’, ‘Hendra’ and ‘Fever Dream’ – by turns driving, epic and ethereal – are all the type of songs Pink Floyd fans wish David Gilmour would still write and it appears, with both new album ‘Fever Dream’ and 2014’s ‘Hendra’ capturing imaginations, Watt can bash out for the rest of his days. Which brings me back to this age thing…

Ben Watt is in his early 50s and out on the road playing fantastic music. His records get played on the radio, just, and people like us want to speak to him. The room was packed, too, and the merch stand did a brisk trade. Yes, there was a lack of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – and the only risk present was the one that someone might throw something at the bar stuff who decided that in between songs was the time to empty bottle bins (have a word, hey, Arts Club) – but does that matter? Is the truth good enough… that good songs, played brilliantly by a fantastic band, are all punters want for our £20?

As Watt and his band played out on the gorgeous ‘Winter’s Eve’, and then threw in an equally delicately bruised take on Everything But The Girl’s ’25th December’, the answer hovered over the heads of the silent souls in attendance: good music is good enough. Keep your event in the desert, and let them brilliant old heroes do their thing, the future of great live music has never shone brighter. Just don’t shout it out loud…

Ben Watt, Fever Dream (Unmade Road), is out now

Pic by Lis Garrett

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