After nine years and five albums (and a short-player) as a solo artist, Richard Hawley must wonder what all the fuss is about reinventing, redefining and rebranding. None of these words feature highly in the Steel City troubadour’s musical vocabulary.
As the music machine keeps chugging, transforming flagging bands into their very antithesis, Hawley continues to refine his ageless music, while all the time reinforcing the timeless qualities of old-fashioned songcraft.
His appearance has always betrayed his musical preferences. Tonight he wears a suspiciously sharp-looking grey suit with matching waistcoat. Is the windfall from his Mercury Prize nod for last album Coles Corner finally trickling down?
Aside from Hawley’s sartorial splendour, he’s amassed quite a collection of gleaming Gibson guitars. Tonight there’s even an extra band member in the handsome Bridgewater Hall.
His latest album, Truelove’s Gutter, is sonically his most adventurous yet, and the evening begins with its opening number, As The Dawn Breaks, with Hawley hardly visible behind plumes of dry ice mist. Waterphones and cristal baschets help create a creepy mood. It’s odd in itself to feel unsettled at a Richard Hawley gig; but the extra dimensions are welcome, especially for the hall’s all-seater crowd.
That is except for one giddy female member of the audience. Repeatedly she cries out: “Let’s get serious!” Hawley, as bemused as the rest of the audience, hesitates a little before he responds, “What exactly should we be getting serious about?” Silence. “Fuck all, clearly,” barks Hawley. His familiar 20-a-day baritone croon soon restores a little order. And so does Open Up Your Door, one of the latest album’s more Coles Corner-esque moments. Hawley innocently pines for love, momentarily transforming Bridgewater Hall into a bygone-era ballroom. “I wanna dance!” cries the girl from before. “Well, fuckin’ dance then!” retorts the playfully gruff Hawley.
But this isn’t really a night for dancing. Both Ashes On The Fire and Don’t Get Hung Up In Your Soul delicately and dolefully drift, calling to mind an entire era of classic country singers – think the Everly Brothers, Jim Reeves and Glen Campbell – as well as the wide-eyed romanticists of the Great American Songbook.
Nor is it music to fall asleep to. Soldier On’s sudden crescendo explodes throughout the hall, physically pinning the crowd to its seats. And as Hawley works his guitar into a violent, effects-laden cacophony, it’s the progressive experimentalism of Pink Floyd that suddenly feels like a more appropriate comparison. “Never say goodbye / you’re the apple of my eye,” he croons, as the song closes to goosepimples all round.
The album’s highlight is undoubtedly the show’s highlight too. Remorse Code is perhaps the best illustration of where Hawley presently finds himself, tentatively drifting out of the conventional country ramble of old and into harder hitting contemporary blues-rock. Again, his impressive fretwork, awash with delay effects and reverb, leaves an audience initially stunned and then in raptures.
He’s not reinvented, redefined or rebranded, but Hawley has moved his sound on a little. With added dimensions it’s emotionally more complex. But by ignoring the surrounding kerfuffle, at its heart it reiterates the age-old songwriting qualities on which he has so successfully depended.