It was back in 1982 after the break up of Steely Dan that Donald Fagen unveiled his signature sound on the ‘The Night Fly’ album and confirmed his creative input into Steely Dan.
And while former Dire Straits bass player and vocalist John Illsley isn’t quite making the same sort of claims with his new ‘Testing The Water’ album, it bears all the hallmarks of the band that was his home for over 18 years.
There’s the familiar arrangements, the world-weary vocals, the most delicate of guitar lines – beautifully shaped on the album and replicated tonight by Robbie McIntosh – and above all – his songs. And they are the clearest indication yet, that bass player Illsley, who tonight switches to acoustic guitar, has something to say outside of revisiting Mark Knopfler’s song book.
It’s not often you see a Grammy award winning muso quietly enjoying a pint behind the jump of his own pub, before shuffling across the room, taking in the hand shakes and smiles, and perching himself in the corner of a flat floor stage.
Tonight he’s celebrating the 25th anniversary of buying the pub, as well as raising funds for the Anthony Nolan stem cell charity. There’s also the little matter of the launch of his ‘Testing The Water’ solo album, which he does in a typically understated way, letting his new songs meld into the gentle flow of the 2 set show.
It’s actually his fourthsolo album, but this one comes with a high profile tour and a significant push to bring our attention to quality songs full of substance and feel.
Illsley is a thoughtful lyricist, an emotive singer and a fine harmony singer, and it is the latter quality that infuses the evening with a magical strand of continuity. John treads a thin line between the tried and tested and his new songs. The opening ‘Walk of Life’ and the heartfelt ‘Romeo & Juliet (‘a difficult one to play because it’s a personal love song written by an old friend of mine’) are obvious crowd pleasers, but his own songs don’t sound out of place for a moment.
He is joined by Jesse Greenfield on bv’s to pad out the hooks of surprisingly strong songs like ‘Toe The Line’ and the beguiling rhythms and whispered vocals of ‘Tell Me’, both from his last ‘Streets of Heaven’ album.
The new songs include the beautifully conceived ‘When God Made Time’, which John tells us was 12 years in the making, and based round a turn of phrase he heard while touring in southern Ireland. Like much of his material, it’s a Dire Straits-influenced piece with a sweeping melody, subtle dynamics and accordion accompaniment.
The moving ‘Run For Cover’ features a vocal that is a cross between Knopfler, and Dylan, with the emphasis on poignant whispered phrasing before the first set closes with a magnificent ‘Sultans of Swing’. It’s accurately described by John as: ‘not too shabby’. The band swings and McIntosh re-invents Knopfler’s guitar part with his own uplifting guitar figure.
By the second set, the reggae inflected and lush harmonies of ‘Darling Heart’ sit well with such big hitters as ‘So Far Away’. And while the well worn metaphors of ‘Railway Tracks’ don’t quite have the same impact, the JJ Cale influenced ‘Sometimes’ provides rhythmic contrast. It was a style he later revisits with one of the encores on JJ’s ‘Mama Don’t (Allow No Guitar Playing ’Round Here’).
Apart from surrounding himself with a musically versatile band whose intricate interplay provides the perfect backdrop for his deeply felt material and expressive phrasing, John Illsley appears be at one with the world. He’s happy to be home in his pub, while giving birth to a new set of songs and dipping into a back catalogue that he helped shape and refine.
By the time of ‘Calling Elvis’ and Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man’, he is all but connecting with the photos that adorn the walls of the tiny music room.
Significantly though, the lasting memory of the evening belongs to his new material, which given the prolonged absence of Dire Straits, offers existing fans a significant re-connect with deeply felt narratives played out over a compelling musical landscape of rock, folk, country and Americana.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Bob Mazzer
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