Given the influence Stephen Black has so explicitly derived from the alas, these days extinct Super Furry Animals when writing under the guise of Sweet Baboo, it ought to be of little surprise that he should’ve enlisted bassist Guto Pryce’s Gulp to support this not particularly insubstantial showing at N1’s Islington Assembly Hall. Gulp, as was the case with SFA and so too still is with Sweet Baboo, plash about playfully in an understated indie majesty, the surfy Vast Space an apt soundtrack to a fictitious motorway chase or a choppy South Walian afternoon. Indeed, if a woozy, at times ethereal psychedelia redux on record, then live, these sweetened pieces assume an ever more gloopy bearing as tracks such as Play ooze a glorious surreality. Their own Slow Life of sorts, bits of bloopy Kraftwerk inspiration combine with Lindsey Leven’s Goldfrapp-y vocal delivery and Gid Goundrey’s astral take on Morricone melodrama. Then, when Leven and erstwhile Race Horses drummer Gwion Llewelyn nimbly enwrap their vocals around one another like puppies might a supple underbelly, the sound wafting out over the PA becomes that bit more lavish still. They depart to the dulcet, slowly motioning Furry Techno scintillation of Diamonds, easing us out of this delightfully quiet surprise as one.
And in the exact same way that Gulp vibrantly up their game in the live arena, so too are Black’s musical excursions made that bit more inspiriting live. For if his tapes, CDs and MP3s can sound that bit too meek at times, then he tonight opts for less a triumphant, than a hi-fi approach to these re-renderings. First, he transmits an effervescent take on The Morse Code For Love Is Beep Beep, Beep Beep, The Binary Code Is One One, drummer Avvon Chambers appositely pounding, and pounding, and pounding “the shit” out of his kit itself comprising a panoply of drums pertaining to various pitches. It’s a start that’s assertive as it is stentorian, and it’s almost entirely unpredicted. Stephen’s inherently deferential demeanour makes itself manifest moments later, as heartfelt thanks pump about the place. “There’s lots of good things on a Thursday” he concedes, although on this sort of form, few could feasibly be any better. “Did you know I am a dancer?/ When I go dancin’, and chancin’ my luck with all those girls, that’s why I’m bound to hell” he’ll sing of a lilting I’m a Dancer, and while the cutting of the proverbial rug may not be his strongest of suits by his very own admission, the song itself is the sound of brassy excellence again delivered with unswerving conviction. For Black, whether still “struggling with my drinking” or back on the so-called ‘straight and narrow’, for now doubtless ranks amongst Great Britain’s better nascent songwriters. And that he so proudly sings, “Let’s dance and then make love” with the twinkly resilience he does during C’mon Let’s Mosh! suggests he too may be beginning to believe in his ability, reticent though he may remain.
For there’s an innate awkwardness of course, this shy and retiring type regaling us with truly insular tales of love, lust, and love lost. But it’s arguably the backing of a more or less full band made up of Chambers, Rob Butler (aka The Voluntary Butler Scheme) and a three-piece brass ensemble that fuels Stephen’s trust in his own adroitness and thrusts the set forwards. For together, they make a thoroughly rotund sound for six, although it’s arguably when left to his own devices that Black is at his hermitic best. “OK, the acoustic guitar’s not been seen since, like 2005, when the super acoustic movement came back in force” he quips, sardonically citing forgotten troubadours Turin Brakes as another of his formative influences during this, “the Turin Brakes section”. But it’s a Zappa lite-like take on another giddy number from 2010 full-length I’m A Dancer / Songs About Sleepin’, Who Would Have Thought…., that really revs the proverbial engine. Amidst dizzying fingerpicking, Black avows without an iota of insincerity: “Who would have thought that I’d have so much to say?/ Your zombie-based collages wanna make me love your brain/ And your space scenes and evil, can I scoop out your mind?/ Scoop it right out, and mix it with mine.” And few in attendance would likely rebuff his lobotomising advances when so enraptured by such Daniel Johnston-esque folly of youthful fancy.
Motorhome meanwhile, even when rendered acoustic, recalls Pryce’s quondam clan in its glorification of the mundane, in that whereas Juxtapozed With U once centred its attentions on “house prices going up, and people being left behind by the super rich”, Motorhome concerns the humdrum purchasing of a recreational vehicle. The missive made all the more explicit by the pared back aesthetic Black elects, he may be gloriously absent stage-centre, but his preparatory lyrics (“Tape deck’s fixed in place, and the oil’s been checked and changed/ And the bodywork is as good as new, and the engine’s finely tuned”) resonate with the vibrant hum of a Hummer H1. “Something wild”? It veers about as far off-road as a well signposted road trip up to Bamburgh Castle, but vividly brilliant, there’s something about it which still guarantees it goes bump in the night.
Stephen then takes things up another gear, reverting to electric type. “Daniel Johnston has written hundreds of great tunes, and I’ve got six” he’ll meekly reckon during If I Died…, although in the Motorhome Songs EP, he’s so evidently added another few to the humble pantheon that is his back catalogue. And this is his mediator, his loving advances relayed sheepishly via the medium of song. “I know I’m difficult, and I know I’m not much fun/ But I tell you what I am, and I tell you what I’d like to be/ And that’s your man” he continues, before launching into the sort of showboating guitar solo that Johnston has never proven himself capable of. Then, “a six-and-a-half-minute song that starts off pretty slow, but it’s pretty good”, and Cate’s Song. We thus go from front to back, or bow to stern of April’s Ships, only Stephen’s self-effacing reassurances that it’s “nearly finished” detracting from its arcadian charm. “And oh, you know that I love you/ And oh, how proud of you I am every day/ And oh, you know I’m never gonna tell you/ But I hope that you know, that I’m just being slow” he croons, his lines that bit more crystalline than they were when first chirped down from the figurative crow’s nest, then interwoven together with gurgled vocoder effect. And never, in its approximated 390 seconds, do we drift off, keeping right there with Stephen “until the end, until the end, until the end.”
Mercifully, this isn’t quite the very end. And while test drives of newer numbers including Do The Buzzard (all elastane tendons, it’s the stuff of a rowdy Wyoming bar grilling bull knees à la carte) and Gotta Hang On To You (with a working title of Thin Lizzy, it recalls a lost, lovelorn ballad whisked together with Phil Lynott’s ashes in the depths of the jar in which they’re kept) ensure Stephen’s musical voyaging in all manner of vehicles will continue long into the future, it’s You Are The Best Beach That I Know that proves to be his very best. A mellifluous beauty, it’s seductive as every one of Magnum’s limited edition Kiss Collection rolled into one candied sweetener, before Let’s Go Swimming Wild blows us all away with a blustery Gower freshness. And last, but by no means least, Twelve Carrots of Love – a track which immediately makes you feel as though your heart may well be “fit to bursting with confetti and silly string”, barfing such unlikely ingredients as it explodes to the eruptive tune of yet more brassy bombast. A buzzy guitar solo ensues, as does an extempore breakdown strangely redolent of Mariah Carey’s Always Be My Baby, but after tonight’s show, the ever-uncertain Stephen can certainly rest safer in the knowledge that he belongs to one of the better bands, if not necessarily “the best band ever”.