It is a beautiful day. Although we’re into late afternoon the sun still smiles on all and sundry assembled on Portobello Road. Sunglasses, vests, t-shirts and bottles of beer, consumed of course al fresco, are simply de rigeur. At the junction with Talbot Road, huddled into a cranny scarcely wider than a bus, the Rough Trade shop swims into focus. With such a name once could be forgiven for expecting whips, chains and an interesting assortment of torture implements, but the reality is an independent record shop with racks of CDs against either wall, another rack dividing the shop into halves and a checkout at the back.
On this beautiful day, as we stoop into this curious place, London’s most polymorphous Irish band is sound-checking in what amounts to half of the shop. Today, for our entertainment, Brian front man Ken Sweeney (vocals, guitar) is accompanied by a synth player who, on closer inspection, turns out to be Marcus from The High Llamas. At the last Brian gig a second guitarist and a bassist were in attendance; their absence today seems fortuitous, for with their assorted leads, amps and instruments the other half of the shop would also have been reserved for the band and the audience would presumably have been suspended from the ceiling in slings.
The soundcheck finishes with a brief rendition of new single Turn Your Lights On and the thirty-odd souls in attendance applaud; then we’re away. Ken guides us through the various tracks from current album Bring Trouble (Setanta) including the single again. Between songs, Ken’s banter is pointed. Clearly he can take on 30 people with his eyes shut. “None of you will make eye contact with me will you?” he challenges, seemingly making the audience aware for the first time of their own actions. But the tracks from Bring Trouble do that to you – they make you wander off into your own world of kitchens at dawn, stars, changing seasons and thoughts of loved ones, all in widescreen and with this soothing, disembodied Irish voice narrating the way for you. In this shop we can see people walking past in the sunlight outside and we’re trying not to knock CD racks over. Gigs in such circumstances are never bad but can from time to time define surreality.
Before Ken’s favourite track from Bring Trouble, Getting Meaner, he exclaims, “Here’s a song Ian Broudie didn’t write”. At this point I definitely do not want to make eye contact but rather want to fall down a big hole. Just my luck, as someone who compared Ken with The Lightning Seeds front man, to find myself in a tiny record shop off the Portobello Road at such a time with not a hole in sight. What was there to do but to make eye contact?!
All too quickly, with a blast of Right Through Tuesday, the set is over. With a totally different accompaniment to his last gig and in this tiny venue Sweeney confirmed his status as a grass-roots songwriter with soul, a man with an enviable ability to turn out excellent, very accessible tunes that simply demand listening to.