I suspect there are few things more depressing for an up-and-coming musician than playing to an audience only slightly greater than the number of fingers on his hands. It says a great deal for jazz funk singer-songwriter George Montague that he didn’t let this bother him during his supporting slot at St James’ Wine Vaults in Bath on this particular Friday night.
His was a tightly focused, barnstorming set on piano, guitar and ukulele liberally punctuated with witty, self-deprecating asides. It immediately made you forget the cold and dingy cellar venue in a friendly pub which is defiantly resisting the gentrification of Bath’s watering holes, and – no mean feat this – imagine yourself in a field at a festival with the sun on your back and a cold cider in your hand.
His style is hard to pin down: sometimes fast and furious, sometimes mellow and melodious, sometimes loud and sometimes soft, and sometimes all of the above in one song alone. He can sound like Elton John, and he can sound like a busker in Nashville. He flits confidently between piano, ukulele and guitar, his songs featuring simple yet poignant lyrics and his jazz influences staying very much the right side of indulgent.
Put simply, he is a joy to watch and part of that enjoyment comes from the pleasure he himself seems to get from performing live, even on nights like this. It is particular relief that he eschews the usual solo male singer-songwriter dirges in favour of lively tracks with a strong sense of fun. He’s not silly (apart from when talking in between songs), he’s just capable of expressing emotion in a way that means you can’t help but listen.
Review: Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts - loquacious anti-tunes and comic book charm at The Exchange
Montague has thoroughly embraced social media, with most of his songs garnering a very respectable (for a newcomer) 500k hits on Youtube, blogging on Tumblr and posting short video clips on Vine. It must have been tempting for him to stick to better known and tried-and-tested tracks, but instead he used the intimate setting to try out some new material, playing all the instruments himself rather than relying on his usual six piece session musicians, collectively known as ‘notsobigband’. And he gave good banter, regularly asking the audience for feedback on which instrument to use and what kind of song to play.
His first, “Sticks and Stones”, was a country-tinged affair using only a beautiful marbled wood guitar called Gloria and a bass drum called Boom which got feet tapping immediately with its quick strumming and pace. “Miss You” moved to the piano, featuring delicate tinkling melodies and a tight arrangement – unsurprisingly it is when playing the piano that Montague sounds most like Elton John. His confident, full voice across the range of musical expression makes something complex appear very easy.
“The Smoke” was a very fast, furious and funky track. It was his first on the ukulele (called Luna), and featured cheeky scat improvised vocals. And “Umbrella” was not, as you might initially have thought, a Rihanna cover but a big-band style tune with lots of plinky-plonky piano. Open Letter, enjoying its first debut live outing, was a thoughtful letter to God, and the last song – called Risk – was a fast, rhythmic guitar number with powerful, hooky melodies.
It’s pretty hard to fathom why there weren’t more people at this gig, especially given that Montague was supporting soulful Dorset singer Jazz Morley. But despite the low turnout, it was clear that Montague is on the cusp of some very interesting things indeed.