“Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, performing material from his debut solo album for the first time at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, please welcome one of Britain’s greatest living songwriters.”
That should have been the introduction for Neil Halstead at this, one of London’s newest and most interesting venues, complete with a Musicians’ Union banner in the main theatre. I don’t care if Creation Records thought his first band, Slowdive, under-achieved. I don’t care if that fickle, fetid bunch of rotters at the NME label him as “alt-country”, “shoegaze” or, most bizarre of all, “shoe techno”. Nor do I care if Mojave 3, his current band, never get a top 40 single hit, for the UK top 40 singles chart is essentially a chart of marketeers and promotional campaigns rather than music and the UK’s single buyers now seem to average age 12. All of this is piffly piffleness. Neil Halstead is wonderful.
Dear reader, you probably think this review will be frightfully gushing from here on in, but I counter your justified sentiment by mentioning two things. One: Neil really needs a haircut. He has magnetic looks when you can see his frowning face, but under lank, greasy and overgrown locks it could be anyone behind that acoustic guitar. Additionally, he needs to tour more, methinks, if he is to get his weight down. Two: solo debut or not, it is not acceptable to start the gig with an out-of-tune guitar (even if you have penned an album called Out of Tune), only to stop half way through the first song (the wonderful See You On Rooftops) and grin uncomfortably at the audience.
That said, See You On Rooftops, recorded, is such an evocative track, he simply couldn’t have failed with it second time around when, at the climax of the set, we finally got to hear all of it – and in tune to boot. “See you in blue jeans/with stars in your hair…” it begins, as he describes some world-transcending girl by using more natural metaphors than John Donne could’ve shaken a planet at. “Caught in the moment as you play with the stars…” he breathily whispers as the audience begins to drift off the floor and into the clouds. I can imagine any number of adventure sports companies wanting to use this track as the theme music to their documentaries, for it is so in touch with nature as to be almost a part of its surroundings. Two Stones In My Pocket isn’t quite such an obvious single, but nevertheless is a beautifully crafted, whimsical tale. The rest of the album seems to follow in the same theme, all of the songs being lovingly crafted jewels which put the world into a different perspective. One Mojave 3 song aside, all the material aired at this gig was new.
What makes his performance special, aside from the lyrics and gentleness of the music, is the breathy way he delivers his hushed vocals over accomplished yet fragile acoustic guitar finger-picking. The most hardened Limp Bizkit fan is putty in Halstead’s hands as he serenades all agendas and preconceptions away. Toilet chat from one obvious nu-metal fan to another: “God, it’s really nice to just, like, drift away, ain’t it?” I could only smile and nod in agreement.