Review: Richard Hawley’s blissful sonics at Bristol Beacon (6/6/2024)

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“You know, I sometimes think about retiring” says Richard Hawley one song away from this evening’s three song encore, before asserting that it’s audiences like tonight that make him want to keep going. The 57 year old singer-songwriter and guitarist is now in his fourth decade as a recording artist but, in baring witness to tonight’s show, one hopes that his long musical journey – starting with his membership of The Longpigs, and later, a brief stint in Pulp, two Mercury Prize nominations and eight solo albums – will continue for decades more.

Hawley strides on to the stage with his five band brethren wearing shades and a black, studded leather jacket with flashes of pink sewn in. Tonight begins with the scuzzy rock epic ‘She Brings The Sunlight’, the opening track from his second Mercury Prize nomination, 2012’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ (his first being Coles Corner in 2006). Hawley’s fizzing solo is early reassurance that his trademark dynamism for delivering faultless guitar tones is all in hand. 

“Up The Owls!” someone bellows from the crowd, in pandering to Hawley’s status as season ticket holder at Sheffield Wednesday. “Have we got some wankers in?” is Hawley’s unimpressed response, and thus the night begins with a pleasurable blend of humorous tension. That apparently puts any would-be hecklers in their place and, in fact, after the walking bass riffs of recent single ‘Two For His Heels’, Hawley lightly admonishes a politely quiet crowd with “You can make a noise or something.”

As we’re less than a week since the release of Hawley’s eighth studio album In This City They Call You Love, new material represents a third of the evening’s twenty song setlist; ‘Prism in Jeans’ has a flinty melodic shuffle (redolent of Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman’s ‘Something Stupid’) and two lovely guitar interludes that underscore Hawley’s economy with uncomplicated instrumental lines. ‘Deep Space’ is a surging, psychedlia-tinged rocker within which Hawley wields a guitar he tells us once belonged to Scott Walker. ‘Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow’ is unashamedly retro country blues that recalls mid-1950s Elvis in acoustic mode.

One of the most attractive aspects of Hawley’s music is his seemingly effortless knack for prising the most impactful sonics from his myriad guitars. When he lets a simple open string ring out at the start of murder-ballad-come-expansive-rock-epic ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’, it sounds positively riveting. Hawley’s consideration for varied guitar tones is evidenced in how busy his guitar tech is fetching up guitars and Hawley quips “He’s the best guitar tech…in his price bracket.” There’s another referring to a famous previous owner of his weighty guitar collection as Hawley informs us that, through a familial connection to The Shadows, his grandmother bought him one of Hank Marvin’s for his seventeenth birthday.

Quick with a sardonic quip and genuinely appreciative in the next moment, Hawley cuts a likeable figure between songs. He informs us that ‘Just Like The Rain’ was written on his 16th birthday and half-jokes that “I was a miserable cunt, even then. A sad little fucker.” He later thanks the audience for being patient in listening to the new songs and his mentioning that his daughter once studied in Bristol and now has a job in the NHS leads to some forthright pre-election Tory-bashing.

Hawley’s ear for a melody, his ability as a guitarist and the warm hug of his crooning vocals is a triumvirate of talents that often make his music irresistible; 2007 favourite ‘Tonight The Streets Are Ours’ is an instantly gratifying slice of euphoria and ‘Coles Corner’ – which sees Hawley aim a ‘Welcome To Sheffield’ road sign toward the crowd – is the beautiful quintessence of the nagging loneliness pervading much of Hawley’s work.

A three song encore features a successful first live performance of ‘Tis Night’ and the skiffle-inflected jaunt of ‘I’m Looking For Someone To Find Me’ offers a last opportunity for Hawley’s wry humour (“You can dance to this one…if you’re a knob.”) Finally, Hawley dedicates his most well-known tune ‘The Ocean’ to “each and every one of you”. It’s certainly not been the performance of someone on the verge of retirement. Hopefully Hawley chooses not to hang up his vast range of guitars anytime soon.

Scott Hammond

Photo by Dean Chalkley