Live Music + Gig Reviews

Tom McRae @ Islington Academy, London

3 December 2004

“I don’t smile.” Apt words from Tom McRae, the intense singer-songwriter responsible for two of the most eloquent, emotive albums of recent years.

This on-the-money announcement formed the closing words of Hidden Camera Show, the song with which he opened the second London date on his current acoustic tour.

McRae seems to actively revel in his misery merchant status, joking about the need to make counselling services available on his website. And the new songs, penned in LA, provide reassuring evidence that all that good weather and good living haven’t exactly brightened his outlook, with Silent Boulevard sounding like a favourite in the making.

His tendency towards melancholy is hardly unique amongst his ilk of earnest, guitar-toting young men, so it’s difficult to understand why he makes such a big deal of it. It’s his lyrical innovation that makes McRae’s material so memorable, his paranoid tales of stalking and surveillance, his music rippled with menace.

Accompanied on stage by his usual cellist and keyboard player, with support act Steve Reynolds backing him up on guitar, McRae ploughed energetically through a set that encompassed most of his two albums plus a good sprinkling of new songs.

After the downbeat opener he changed gears completely, leaping into the electric Karaoke Soul from 2002’s Just Like Blood. He really understands how to make his material work live, taking the already formidable A and B song (from his self-titled debut album) and turning it into something genuinely soul-searing. For an acoustic show this was pretty epic stuff and all the more enjoyable for it.

As ever, McRae comes across as a smart, likeable guy, though his sharp sense of humour occasionally crossed the line into smart arse territory. However just when you thought he was starting to sounding a wee bit too self-satisfied he goes and plays something like the bleakly beautiful Mermaid Blues with its haunting, oceanic sound and deeply plaintive lyrics, reminding you that he’s got every right to be cocky.

With the characterless corporate box that is Islington Academy enforcing a strict 10pm curfew (something to do with an Xfm club night) McRae did well to fit in so many favourites, giving us Sao Paulo Rain and End of the World News, as well as a bizarre bit of audience participation on Bloodless, hardly the most sing-alongable of songs with its bitter lyrics about cowardice and apathy, but somehow it just about worked.

During his last track of the night, Boy with the Bubble Gun, actual bubbles were sent drifting ceilingward and I’m still not sure if this was intended ironically or not. With Tom McRae it’s often hard to tell.

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Tom McRae @ Islington Academy, London