Richard Hawley, at the ripe old age of 34, is slightly bemused by the reaction to his newly launched solo career. He seems to think he’s too old to be standing up there producing the music he likes, and which he self-deprecatingly calls “dodgy cowboy songs”. Well a) he’s not too old (good heavens, even his mate Jarvis Cocker is 38, even if he does still look like a grubby schoolboy at times) and b) the songs may have more than a faint whiff of lonesome pines about them, but dodgy they ain’t. In fact they’re terrific, “beautiful songs about families falling apart and of love found and then lost”.
It’s true, though, that he left it late to come into the spotlight. He first went on a European tour at the tender age of 14. Until April this year and the release of his first eponymously titled mini-album, he was known only for excellent guitar work with artists and bands as varied as Pulp, The Longpigs, Robbie Williams, Beth Orton, Finlay Quaye, All Saints, Red Hot Chilli Peppers… the list goes on and on. And all this time he was the possessor of a voice that many commentators have remarked is far better than any of the lead vocalists he has worked with.
At Dingwalls Richard Hawley had a bad, bad cold. So bad that his lead guitarist Shez (Sheridan) said he could hardly get through the rehearsal. He still sang like a dream, pausing only to sniff during laconic asides between songs. I can’t wait to hear him when he’s feeling good. His voice has been compared to a host of others: Lee Hazlewood, Chris Izaak, Frank Sinatra crossed with Ian McCullough with a bit of Scott Walker thrown in”, or – my personal favourite – “Ian McCullough doing a sad Roy Orbison“. He doesn’t have the tenor range of Orbison but the baritone reaches more than make up for that – they are like the rumble of a friendly bear. Perhaps what makes his voice so special, though, is that it is totally relaxed – it sounds effortless, warm, comforting. It doesn’t matter that most of the songs are about loss and that in at least half of them he’s singing about leaving home and never coming back again. The way he sings them, they’re still warm and comforting.
We were treated to a great set, consisting of about half and half first and new album, Late Night Final. An appreciative audience (including Jarvis, who has been to every one of his solo gigs) was mesmerised by old favourites Coming Home, Bang to Rights and the splendidly wry Happy Families which Richard dedicated to everyone who’d had “c***s as parents”. The Nights are Cold, Can You Hear The Rain, Love’ were new, together with a version of Cry a Tear for the Man in the Moon that was considerably more upbeat than on the album.
All his songs are simple, but the musicianship is evident in every one, and he’s assembled a talented group around him. The before-mentioned Shez plays guitar and lap steel. Colin Elliott is on bass guitar and double bass, Andy Cook on drums and the diminutive Bennett Holland barely visible on keyboards, but pivotal to the arrangements. They’ve been playing together for around a year now and the result really is a joy, the gentle simplicity of the songs perfectly rounded into an unforgettable sound. It’s both nostalgic – classic ’50s Americana, where when men leave home they do it on trains that go ‘woo-woo’ – and yet also curiously modern. I’ve given up working out how he does it, I just know I could listen to it all night. A heart-warming evening.