Gig review: RICHARD HAWLEY – Hammersmith Apollo, London, 23 February 2016

“It’s OK, we’re from the North”, said Richard Hawley on ascending the stage, as if he needed to get the audience on side. There was really no need. The scope, authenticity and quality of his music were more than enough to get them eating out of his hands.

Hawley was promoting his seventh solo album, ‘Hollow Meadows’ and this was his first headlining show at the Apollo. He was very humble about treading the boards in the footsteps of his heroes. He should get used to it. The Hawley star is rising.

Five of tonight’s songs came from ‘Hollow Meadows’. The album is something of a return to the quietly produced, caramel-toned feel of earlier outings, after the superb fuzz-storm of 2012’s ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge. And yet he chose to kick off the gig with one of the two rocky tracks on the new platter. ‘Which Way’ set the tone for a show that leant rather more heavily on the electric than the acoustic material.

Second up was the pop celebration of ‘Tonight The Streets Are Ours’, replete with whiffs of Springsteen in the keyboard hook. It’s a fine song, but sounded almost whimsical in comparison with some of the weighty tunes that followed.

Like the title track of that 2012 opus. Bathed in acid green light, Hawley addressed the microphone with a smooth baritone that belied the subject matter, ‘Joseph was a good man though he killed his wife/His hungry little children, he took their lives’ . His guitar spat shards of terrifying malevolence. Pure drama, that would be cheesy were it not for the honesty and integrity that underpins every note of Hawley’s material and delivery.

And then we switched again. ‘I Still Want You’ was an open-hearted ballad of majesty and simplicity, carried along on a sublime, velvety vocal.

Perhaps the only bum note of the gig was ‘Leave Your Body behind You’ which, with its discordant drum track and heavily effect-laden swirling guitars, seemed to lose the plot in Hammersmith’s echo chamber.

Back to the ballads for ‘Sometimes I Feel’ which again delivered pristine, glowing sentiments without the shmaltz. The phrasing was reminiscent of a Leonard Cohen composition, particularly with the massed backing vocals.

Where Hawley’s two worlds of loud and quiet met was where the gig found its zenith. ‘Open Your Door’ was stunning. He held the audience enraptured with those lustrous tones, crooning ‘I can’t hear your voice no more/I just want to make you smile/Maybe stay with you awhile’

It’s all about the voice.

And then he picked out some shimmering notes from his white Gretsch semi-acoustic that built to an enveloping climax and sent the soul soaring.

It’s all about the guitar.

Hawley is becoming something of a style icon these days: blue denim jeans rolled up at the ankles, denim jacket, slicked back hair. I saw at least half a dozen blokes sporting the exact same 50’s look round the gig.

He has an old fashioned sense of humour too. Introducing ‘Tuesday PM’, he said, “This is the most miserable song I’ve ever written. If this doesn’t bring you down, nothing will.” By the time the chuckles had died down, he was releasing more tortured, raw anguish into the night with ironically easy assurance.

That was the last of the ballads this side of the encore. ‘Time Will Bring You Winter’ featured an extended sequence of reverb-fuelled guitar breaks, and ‘Down In The Woods’ spun round the venue in dizzying psychedelic waves. The band came to the fore in this section. Second guitarist Shez Sheridan traded numerous licks with Hawley and is clearly a fine musician in his own right.

The driving rhythms of ‘Heart Of Oak’, the only other rocker on ‘Hollow Meadows’ were followed by the powerful ‘There’s A Storm Comin’ ‘ to close the set.

He was back for a three-song encore where the tender ‘What Love Means’ split a couple of early tracks: the melancholy ‘Coles Corner’ painted lingering pictures of his Sheffield heartland and finally ‘The Ocean’ brought down the curtain on a night of free-wheeling emotion. Magnificent.

Review by Dave Atkinson

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