Review: H.Hawkline – a beautifully subdued tour closer at Rough Trade (17/3/23)


(Photo by Sophie Caby)

It’s both the one week anniversary since the release of fifth studio album Milk For Flowers and an evening where the curtain closes on Cardiff born singer-songwriter H. Hawkline’s (real name Huw Evans) seven date UK tour. Created in the aftermath of his mother’s death, the new record is a mellow, contemplative search for meaning in the face of personal tragedy. It’s a subdued, though not particularly sombre, album that needs to be sat with and absorbed before its muted tones can begin to seep into the heart of its listener.

This lack of immediacy, combined with a sense that its pensive soundtrack is perhaps not the typical choice for a Friday night out, suggests that its reproduction in the live forum might be a slightly tough sell. What follows are beautifully performed renditions – featuring soothing pianos, delicate percussion and warm bursts of saxophone – of eight from the album’s ten tracks. However, it’s not until a final, three song sprint of older material that the gig is elevated from its cloyingly nice quietude.

Opener ‘Milk For Flowers’ noticeably meets the quality requirement for its status as album title track; it has a buoyant yet introspective piano figure which segues into the new record’s hookiest chorus, and Evans’ deft falsetto, either side of a touching interlude in which he sings “I miss you so much.” Featuring call and response saxophone, a jaunty piano riff, and Evans’ reverb-heavy guitar leads, ‘Plastic Man’ is certainly Milk For Flowers’ energetic outlier.

Having bared witness to a H.Hawkline show some years ago, his adroit sideline in slightly off-kilter between-song badinage seems to be appropriately muted in sync with the weighty themes of his newer material. However, when taking a seat to play keyboards and then acoustic guitar during ‘Suppression Street’, he leaves an uncomfortably long silence in the room after joking that “I like to leave silence to the point of strangeness, and then start the next song.” It’s a brief moment that has an echo of comedian Stewart Lee’s testing his audiences with silence and repetition.

Before ‘It’s a Living’, he also playfully chastises a member of the evening’ support band, and makes threat to sever their professional relationship, for changing the settings on Evans’ guitar pedal. The song itself is rendered with some elegantly dancing piano and Evans’ capable, distinctive vocals – including that falsetto again – are showcased within the chorus’ enigmatic mantra “Old women, young children, can teach you everything you need to know about living.” Evans introduces ‘Mostly’ as a song about “choosing the circumstances of your death” and it’s a tastefully languid grove that bursts open halfway through when Evans’ sharp guitar solo duets with the stabbing interjections of his sax player.

The hattrick of older songs begins with ‘Engineers’, an exponent of his hitherto calling card of twisted indie folk and abstract, skewed lyricism (“A piece of tenderness given to a dog in good faith/No reason to suspect the chicken with the egg on its face”). ‘Means That Much’ hops along with jangly, intermittent guitars and the sort of immediate chorus that is generally lacking in the new material.

There’s one last instance of Evans’ deadpan Welsh delivery when, in announcing that it’s the final song of the evening, there’s a solitary groan from a single audience member: “Oh that’s the best response” he says, before sarcastically chiding what has admittedly been a politely subdued audience. The electro-pop tinged ‘Last Thing on Your Mind’ brings the night to a close. It’s been a tight sixty minute set. The arrangements from Milk For Flowers have been so beautifully and faithfully captured that H.Hawkline has succeeded in getting across his ruminate album written in the wake of grief. The final triumvirate of tunes, however, were a glimpse of a higher gear that felt welcome when it finally arrived.

Scott Hammond