Review: Bill Ryder-Jones – mining hope from the heartache at sold-out Thekla (17/3/2024)

With January’s Iechyd Da – it translating as “good health” in Welsh and his first album in nearly five years – Bill Ryder-Jones made a convincing case for his credentials as one of those pure and unique artists who can channel one’s own struggles into something both beautiful and universal. Those already familiar with the former lead guitarist of The Coral will be aware of his mental health issues (it was agrophobia, panic attacks and depression that saw him depart the group in 2008) and the events since his last record – the pandemic, a romantic split – have seemingly fuelled arguably his finest work yet.

However, as once offered up by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in a decade old interview, it may be healthier to regard the notion of the tortured artist as a myth. That great art is created in spite of pain, not because of it. Ryder-Jones has clear musical gifts that would have existed anyway. However, there’s no doubt his struggles continue to imbue his music – slightly fractured, melancholic folk prone to bouts of euphoric uplift – with a moody and distinct nature.

“Thank you for coming, we’ve got lots of tunes to get through so we’ll just crack on”, he declares as the evening begins. Opener ‘I Hold Something In My Hand’ attractively sets out the band’s tasteful dynamic; drums and bass tucked behind Ryder-Jones’ mostly strummed guitar, lead arpeggios and a consistently lovely interplay of pedal steel/keys and cello. It’s the beautiful execution of the latter – in the form of some swooning embellishments – that cause Ryder-Jones to point in approval at cellist Evelyn Halls following ‘Christinha’. “That took me by surprise”, he concedes.

The poignantly titled ‘If Tomorrow Starts Without Me’ references his mental health issues (“If the monsters call you names, then I’m with you/I’ve had monsters play games with me too”) but within its spry groove and choral keyboards we’re able to mine some hope from the heartache. Low key but playful beneath his curly mop of hair, Ryder-Jones utters “apparently it’s St Patrick’s Day” (tonight his bass player is wearing a Republic of Ireland football jersey circa 1988), and this induces a hopeful request for “Whiskey In The Jar” from an audience member. Instead, we get ‘Anthony & Owen’, a slow delicate strum turning into a moody fingerpicked ballad within which the lilting pedal steel takes centre stage in expressing the song’s melancholia.

There’s a false start during the first couple of lines of ‘Wild Swans’ – “Every fuckin’ night of the tour, this shouldn’t be my job” Ryder-Jones half-jokes before getting back on track with lead guitar duties that evoke his erstwhile Coral days (he still wears his Coral-era guitar strap). “It’s really weird without Jeff here”, he says in reference to out of action gig-goer supreme Big Jeffrey Johns. This induces some incoherent heckle from the upper deck to which Ryder-Jones replies with a sarcastic “Shandy’s one hell of a drug.”

‘Daniel’ is certainly the saddest, and possibly the most beautiful, of Ryder-Jones’ catalogue. Inspired by the childhood trauma of he and his family witnessing his older brother’s death after falling from a cliff, devastating lyrics like “Daniel belongs to the ocean” are leavened by an airy, romantic melody. The song ends in a cathartic, euphoric surge. Ryder-Jones’ music consistently has that sense of duality; that joy and anguish are somehow awkwardly entwined.

His bandmates vacate the stage and Ryder-Jones delivers a solo ‘Seabirds’, which is dedicated to Big Jeff. “I’m scowling a bit because I hate not being pissed” he says, “I’m trying to take my job more seriously.” He then jokes that he’s still carrying his holiday weight…from 2020 that is.

With funereal but pretty keyboard-led ballad ‘A Bad Wind Blows in my Heart Pt 3’, Ryder-Jones’ gives a defiant send off to a lover who only used to call him when lonely, before lamenting “Oh, how I loved you.” Again, something mournful becomes somehow celebratory as an increased tempo races it to a finish.

Hall’s gorgeous cello once again has Ryder-Jones impressed, so much so that he near misses his vocal cue during ‘Thankfully for Anthony.’ Hall then gives a playful blast of the Only Connect theme before the chiming riffs of ‘Nothing To Be Done’ and the Pavement-esque alt-rock of ‘Two to Birkenhead’ end proceedings in a more robust indie rock vein. Ryder-Jones and his band have blitzed through sixteen songs and there isn’t an encore. If Ryder-Jones can ever reach a level of happiness to match his talents, something like nirvana awaits.

Scott Hammond