Better Times. Tim Burgess, Islington Assembly Hall.

Better Times. Tim Burgess, Islington Assembly Hall.

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’

And so Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities, with London and Paris those in question, although it was as Salford-born, if Northwich-bred peroxide-blond polymath Tim Burgess popped back into Islington that the above quote stirred among my greying matter. For the words feel most applicable to Burgess’ 2013: if the sometime Charlatan’s solo career has gone from strength to strength in the wake of last year’s Oh No I Love You – a first solo effort in nine years – then the band’s drummer, Jon Brookes, tragically passed away way back in August. Thus we see ‘the best of times’ callously juxtaposed with ‘the worst of times’; Darkness interspersed between Light; hope wrestling with despair. And in keeping with comparison, if Burgess’ Royal Albert Hall tribute to Brookes back in October was something of a commemorative affair, then tonight is a gingerly festive, if fully celebratory showing by contrast.

Granted, it’s not without its moments of listless torpor, The Economy an inessential hoedown with the vigorous jigging of Years Ago disorienting similarly. Redolent of Macca’s Dance Tonight, Anytime Minutes intensifies the oddly somnolent impact of the opening moments. And with the moon right and spirits – both moralistic and alcoholic – up, this lethargic start perhaps isn’t exactly all we’re thirsting for come mid-December. “I tried to decide [on what to wear] for what felt like forever. And then I just wore what I’d been wearing all day” Burgess chirrups, and in a Nike sweater and skinny jeans, nor is he trussed up in altogether festal attire, either.

But, as he semi-prowls and part-skulks through a perfectly stoic Tobacco Fields, the evening slowly, if surely catches, his dirgeful lyrics of “snow on a trampoline” thawed by Mark Collins’ softly plucked acoustic that coruscates akin to steadily dwindling embers. The night’s most almighty roar is reserved for The Charlatans’ enduring lead guitarist, and rightly so, for Collins proves the perfect foil for Burgess’ more perambulatory and dishevelled, if still faintly dandyish, ways. When so baritonal, his vocals can become nigh on entirely indecipherable, and you’re led to wonder as to whether he does so concertedly, so as to conceal the decidedly elegiac subject matter enwrapped within. “Blowing me away” remain its most readily detectable words, and even in such intimate surrounds, Burgess can cut a lonesome, solitary figure.

Though for the most part, whether intentionally or inadvertently, he plays into many a Britpop trope, not least in this masking of lyrically articulated emotion in slur and flagrant Gallagher mimicry, his left hand held behind his back throughout an aptly retrospective Only One I Know. Tonight acoustically rendered, it’s thereby comparatively pacific and almost sounds as though it’s been picked from Strawberry Fields Forever. Though not only is this particular revision more expansive when compared with its original take, but it’s infinitely more imaginative, too.

Less so, although no less necessary, is a suitably woozy rendition of Arthur Russell’s I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face as tenebrous undertones and a funereal timbre lend a dolorous, if still dulcet tone to proceedings. Veneered with a patina of incontrovertible swagger, it’s something that’s extraordinarily lacking from much of this particular soirée – so much so that by the time Burgess comes to so nasally croon, “I’ll not brave the dance floor for you” during A Gain, you sense he some days struggles to so much as shuffle out of his Stoke Newington cocoon.

At times intrinsically hermitic, he takes his lyrical cues from a music stand positioned stage-centre throughout, but for White – a song so fine he couldn’t not play it, and couldn’t not play it to conclude. Comparatively pared-back tonight, if still strikingly reminiscent of Russell’s Wild Combination, once stripped of keys and brass, it shines like a newly polished trombone left out in a rich Cheshire heat. And speaking of stifling climes, if his Nike sweater originated in Barcelona, then he took few linguistic cues home from Cataluña, Oh My Corazon a lyrically flawed, if still irrefutable highlight. Tonight arresting, if at times unrecognisable when reflected back in the drivetime sheen to have first decorated its recorded counterpart, the same can be said of a couple of jingly Yuletide treats, Burgess most notably grousing his way through Judy Garland’s Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

“Merry Christmas, everyone. And happy holidays!” Tim, a man of the people and one capable of endearing himself toward any which populace, then intones. And having responded just the once, a series of hollers (“Love you, Tim!”, etc.) then ring around ad infinitum. Thus although musically, tonight may be something of a mixed bag – from faintly arabesque, lost Bond songs (Hours) to Arthur Russell songs of praise and impersonation alike, farmyard hop and funereal dirge – this can be seen to be Burgess’ epoch of self-belief; his winter of hope. And with everything before this impressively polymathic chameleon – this blender of Fairtrade coffee beans; cereal sous-chef; ‘supremo’ of the annually, or indeed serially active, travelling Tim Peaks Diner; estimable, if only occasional BBC Radio 6 Music DJ – I think it’s fair to assume he can now anticipate a pretty happy New Year…

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