Birmingham’s Town Hall is a peculiar place. The venue has just over 1000 seats, and on first impressions, you would expect to see some re-enactments of classic Shakespeare on the intimate stage to an audience of literature lovers and theatre fanatics — but not tonight. I’m here to see singer-songwriter Scott Matthews, who released his second album ‘Elsewhere’ on Island Records in summer this year. Earlier in his career, many compared Wolverhampton’s Matthews to the likes of Paul Weller and Bob Dylan in his musical style and delivery. The critical acclaim didn’t end there either – Matthew’s song Elusive won the Ivor Novello Award for best song ‘lyrically and musically’. Expectations are high.
But first the main support. With the venue about three-quarters full, the lights dim and there’s a hush across the crowd. On walks Jo Hamilton, a singer-songwriter, followed by her bassist and keyboard player. The most noticeable thing is the size of her flared trousers – they really are far too big. Armed with an electric guitar, Hamilton moves towards the microphone and starts to sing.
It’s fair to say that she possesses one of those god-given voices, and she really uses it to great effect on her opening track. In fact, that voice is the focal point of the whole set. There’s some nice touches from her backing band too, who manage to strengthen the songs’ ability to hold an audience’s attention. But this is the problem. Despite Hamilton’s memorable voice, she still needs to be singing memorable songs to capture an unfamiliar audience. All too often her songs become bland after thirty seconds of listening, relying on nuances from the keyboard player to prevent some of the audience from heading early to the bar. Hamilton provided a pleasant but forgettable performance.
About twenty minutes later, Scott Matthews takes to the stage, seven minutes early by my watch, which really is quite rare. The now full venue is abrupt with an infectious excitement, and Matthews opens with two tracks from his first album Passing Strangers with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. His technical ability to perform is obvious from the moment he starts, and this along with the strength of his songs puts him in the top brackets of singer-songwriters.
‘I’m a bit nervous tonight,’ Matthews cheekily admits to his audience, while his backing band joins him on stage. ‘This ones off the new album, it’s called Into The Firing Line,’ stated Matthews before being told by the cello player he’s ‘really out of tune’. After a minute of retuning, the singer reveals his embarrassment and takes a swig of brandy, to the amusement of the audience. Into The Firing Line is played slightly different to the recorded version, much slower with a darker ambience, and the energy on record which makes it a stand out track, feels unnecessarily lost. Fortunately, this is the only track that is dramatically changed in a live environment. The full band performs more tracks from the first and second album, actually making some of the lesser songs on record into unbelievably dynamic and catchy ballads. A particular stand out track is Suddenly You Figure It Out, which Matthews sings magnificently with a visible enjoyment and conviction. The set up of the backing band adds to the ambient and atmospheric feel of the performance. There are six different guitars on stage next to Matthews, rigged up to small vintage valve amps from the 1950’s and 60’s, the attention to detail really shows.
As the gig progresses, the interaction with the crowd get more interesting, with Matthews’ telling tales of brandy fuelled weekends, resulting in a member of the audience buying him a drink from the bar. Matthews rewards the faithful by performing some classics from his first album such as ‘City Headache’, which has some of the best guitar parts I have ever heard. On occasions, the backing band is sent off stage for Matthews to perform solo. His latest single 12 Harps, recorded with Robert Plant, is performed acoustically. The song’s selection as a single is baffling – it’s one of Matthews’ most forgettable tracks. Towards the end of the performance, the audience are treated to an electric version of Elusive. The song is the highlight of the evening without question. If you haven’t heard Elusive, you need to listen to it – song-writing at its most magical. The crowd make an incredible noise, compared to earlier in the evening, when Matthews leaves the stage. He returns to acoustically perform Eyes Wider Than Before and Elsewhere for the encore, which are two of his most beautifully crafted ballads. ‘Thanks you for supporting real music, I’ve really, really enjoyed tonight, it’s been brilliant,’ he says before absorbing the crowd’s appreciation, and strolling off stage. The only song missing from tonight’s set-list was the single ‘Fractured’, one of the most instant in his catalogue. Why he didn’t play it I don’t know.
Scott Matthews is really an act you must see live to appreciate the quality of musicianship, this extends to his backing band also, made up of a keyboard/cello player, bassist and drummer. They are all of an excellent pedigree, and provided me with a musical showcase I will never forget. Scott Matthews just needs to remember if something is not broke, don’t fix it.
Review Lucas Coe