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Richard Hawley live at Usher Hall, Edinburgh – Gig review

Richard Hawley’s new album, In This City They Call You Love, demonstrates that the songwriter is at his best when delivering luscious, backwards-looking ballads. When we arrive at his Usher Hall gig on 3rd June, support act John Smith is charming the crowd with ambivalent tales of his seaside upbringing before launching into an acoustic folk song that evokes John Martyn (with whom he has previously toured).

Yet while Smith’s is a stripped back set, requiring barely more than a spotlight and a mic, behind him sit more than half a dozen amps of various sizes that suggest the skiffle-inflected rock ‘n’ roll show to come. The applause is as close to rapturous as the middle-aged Monday night crowd is set to get when Hawley takes the stage, his rockabilly silhouette mirrored either side of him by his lead and rhythm guitarists. 

The band of six – comprising also bass, drums and keys – are tightly rehearsed, having just played The Barrowland Ballroom last night, and while his attempts to stir up a Glasgow/Edinburgh rivalry (‘They were a bit livelier,’ he taunts) fall on indifferent ears, it’s clear that the new album is already on hard rotation with the crowd who mouth the words to the likes of ‘Prism in Jeans’ and ‘Heavy Rain’.

When Hawley plays ‘Just Like The Rain’, a detour from the new stuff and in fact a song he tells us he wrote when he was just sixteen, it’s introduced with the joke that it’s proof he was ‘a miserable fucker, even back then.’ Listening to it in such close proximity to the new album, though, the word ‘miserable’ comes off as a glib euphemism for ‘torturously lovestruck’. His songs follow a through-line of obsession that culminates with this perfectly conceived line in Heavy Rain: In my dreams I tell you / That I always dream about you in my dreams.

It is admittedly a slight shame that he and the band seem set against leaning into the gentle lull of his best work, instead putting on a show that features a near-ridiculous number of guitar change-overs. At least fifteen guitars make an appearance, begging the questions: Are there even that many keys; and, how much more of this can the sound techs take? Things start to feel even more Spinal Tap when Hawley, who wears sunglasses inside for the entire performance, spits onto the floor. 

‘Deep Space’ the seventh track on the new album, is one of the faster songs that allows Hawley the opportunity to go full pub-band in a way that does – credit where it’s due – uplift the show and succeeds in reinforcing the songwriter’s ear for authentic-sounding pre-Beatles rock. Maybe the night before, in the wooden ballroom of The Barras with that more emboldened crowd, its pulsing quality added to the show’s overall feeling of pulling you back in time, but it left me (and hey, maybe it is just me) waiting to return to the contemporary wit that elevates the slow stuff and brings it into the now.

Despite such minor gripes though, we’re lucky to have Hawley. As The Lemon Twigs do so well with the sun-soaked sound of the Sixties, Richard Hawley continues to pull off melodies and turns of phrase that hark back to his kitbag of influences – in his case Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley (particularly on ‘Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow) – without ever falling into pastiche or parody. And while it’s this same sincerity that can make the show’s grandiosity feel a touch silly, we should feel grateful that people can still write and deliver such timeless music.

Photo credit: Dean Chalkley

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