We’ve come to expect the expected of Richard Hawley, though that doesn’t make for a show that falls anywhere short of engrossing. Somewhat less foreseeably however, the Sheffield songsmith tonight attracts a motley ensemble enrobed in equal numbers of rugby shirts and Pulp tees, which says a not insubstantial deal about the gender ratios on display, as the queue for the men’s snakes halfway through this quaint old dame named Troxy – each body in line effectively rendered a human lager funnel for the evening. For there’s an oddly blokey appeal to Hawley: whether that be due to his blue collared background, or the reticently expressive emotions he conveys in song format he seems to cajole the gents into an intense sense of feeling they would more often than not otherwise opt to repress.
Onstage, shoots of verdant foliage sprout about, their twiggy arms outstretched – representative perhaps of the spindly silhouettes to have once stood ‘At The Sky’s Edge where now tower only lofty office blocks erected by those most (at least superficially) dispassionate and impassive of blokes. The sky is tonight a dismal dark – as I don’t doubt it will be up in Hawley’s native Yorkshire – and sat up in the circle, we’re that little bit closer to the central subject matter of his bombastic seventh full-length. Though returning indoors to the venue itself a moment, it’s utterly perfect for Hawley as it sublimely epitomises those faded values of grandeur and suavity. The circle, so too, pertains to this throwback feel as we perch upon lurid pews in pod-like booths. And that’s the other discernible feature of tonight’s audience – that there’s something of a clamour to be up in the proverbial cheap seats for once.
And so if his audience is well lubricated, then Hawley is sartorially leathered as ever. His hair neatly greased back, he too is but a silhouette – slight as a pine, and yet still grand as most oaks. Thus snagged on more than a wispy semblance of a certain Alex Turner, the then loose-lipped youth’s 2006 Mercury Music Prize acceptance speech consisting of “Someone call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed!” immediately sprints to mind, with Hawley having just this week missed out on a BRIT for British Male Solo Artist. He this time lost out to a rather less worthy contender in Ben Howard though as the swirling, vivid psychedelia of Standing At The Sky’s Edge descends like a variegated mist it squalls through the venue like a typhoon of tumbleweed, sweeping away with it all form of resentment.
Immediately, Hawley is that bit more animated than he was when our paths last converged: then it was Latitude, and he was wheelchair-bound; now he’s as though a man reborn with his boyish vim again found. And in keeping with the stargazing, and overtly optimistic disposition of this most ebullient of openers is Don’t Stare At The Sun – one which was written while “flying kites with me son off me ‘ead on acid”, as he so openly declares. You’d think it irresponsible were the outcome, or even the mere prospect of Richard adopting you as his own not quite so seductive. “Love just drifts us on” he soothes, his paternal croon bristling with reassurance as it bobs along serene as an autumnal leaf caught in the lapping undertow of Blackburn Brook. Again befitting this ornate, if dubiously pigmented setting there’s a lazy, almost decadent feel to it as its lines fall lethargically; loveably off one another.
And then we roll into the somehow quietly festive soft rock of Tonight The Streets Are Ours: plumped up with a lavish kind of splendour, if his voice is as comforting to the ear as the touch of fag foil to the tips of yellowed fingers then it’s subtle, and indeed smokier still. And as he sighs of televisions blinding us “from our visions and our goals”, at Saturday primetime his concerns couldn’t possibly resound with a more despairing poignancy. There’s an almost symphonic quality to it – the wintry hymnal of the abiding underdog. Though herein lies a reservation over the penman that is Richard Hawley, for he seems destined to forever hold his peace upon the banks of those more mainstream concerns. Which makes it that bit bizarre that he should have last been seen lined up alongside the likes of Howard, Calvin Harris, Olly Murs and Plan B at the BRITs. And although the Troxy is tonight teeming, one can’t help but sense that this is the sort of greatly urbane soirée greater numbers should be experiencing.
So I set about wondering as to why. And Seek It, with its saccharine lyrics of “If you seek it, you won’t find/ Another’s eyes so, blinded by love”, would suggest something excessively maudlin for some when taken out of context. Though this well manifested, it is conducive only to further infatuation. In fact when articulated quite so effectually, he could sing pretty well whatever he fancied without deterring any lilting affections. So it ain’t the rife emotivity, and indeed I’d go so far to the contrary as to contend that being one of his more enticing of trademarks. Nor is it due to the once rather more one-dimensional aspect of his songbook, as Soldier On immediately signals a shift in focus: softened and centred around the wilting refrain of “Never say goodbye/ You’re the apple of my eye”, it positively erupts as he bemoans the slow burn demise of nonspecific stars. Explosive as a supernova in its latter stages, it’s a stellar flare-up that this time devastates as much as all to have gone before it has delighted.
It’s prefaced, also, by a jocular introduction of sorts, during which Hawley brands it “the quietest song I ever wrote.” He continues, verbatim: “So if everybody could talk, and the bar staff could throw all the bottles from one side of the bar to t’tother that’d be fookin’ brilliant ‘n’ all.” They duly do, though come its smashing denouement the only clinking is reverberating out from his resonant semi-acoustic. Thus he’s so too successfully managed to maintain his mildly infantile, if expert humour to in turn offer one less reason to exhibit any form of indifference. He’ll later turn courtly jester once heckled, as he slyly garbles in an idle tone: “Most artists have a plant in the audience. I’ve got a fookin’ vegetable” before introducing Dean Beresford as the man “on drums and football scores”, and John Trier as he with “keys and eBay” covered. “My name is Susan” he then wryly smirks, his lips curled that little bit more than usual.
Thus if his repartee gutters wildly between heartwarming family man anecdotes and sidesplitting hilarity to have your entrails figuratively oozing out from your flanks, then he upkeeps a steadfast professionalism when playing and, in keeping with the ambience, it’s all unabashedly throwback. Though Leave Your Body Behind You harks back to a different era altogether – to the ’90s, and a time at which Hawley was still to hone his craft. It is another exemplar of Standing At The Sky’s Edge material sounding that bit more expansive in the live setting – so much so that another stadium must surely crumble with his every pedalboard stomp. We can but hope that it was tonight the turn of that nearby Olympic one…
By contrast however, with its lyrics of “It won’t be me who sets you free”, Before stands wistful as an aged willow – an open, uninhibited, and endearingly self-effacing expression of candid ease. This is Hawley thumbing gracefully through his canon as he peels back the pages of the songbook, and with that unlatches the elaborate guitar stash he has over time accrued, a rosy Gibson wheeled out for a genteel Open Up Your Door. “Love is so hard to find / And even harder to define” he soughs plainly over silken guitar lines replete with lovely little hanging notes here and there, thereby elucidating his claim to the mantel of contemporary (if stylistically retrograde) pop laureate. You’d surely die that slight bit inside, were anyone to write such compassionate stanzas of you…
Similarly familiar is an incidentally rare outing for the outstandingly serene There’s a Storm a Comin’: torn from his 2010 EP False Lights From The Land, although only played for the third time tonight there’s a supreme composure to its Feeling Good-inspired swagger whilst snatched from further back in time – if still undeviatingly played out in the key of melancholy – I’m On Nights sprinkles a little glisten into the latter stages. Though it’s neither intermediary releases nor Lowedges that continues to be Hawley’s calling card, and this will surely always be deemed Coles Corner. Thus it feels fitting that he should bring the curtain down with the crashing cymbals and undulating repeated lyrical refrains of “Here comes the wave” that combine to roll with The Ocean. It makes for a tumultuous, and indeed triumphant denouement and although it provides little conclusive proof as to why Mr. Richard Hawley stills find himself stranded out on the periphery of the city, as well as of popular culture itself – especially of a time at which retrospection has never been seen to be so voguish – you’d be hard pushed to find even a solitary qualm with him come the close of another quite spectacular, if quietly staged display.