Tag Archives: Withered Hand

Withered Hand & Darren Hayman & The Long Parliament – The Scala, London 15/10/14

One of the most palpable influences on tonight’s headliner’s work is Darren Hayman and the various musical vehicles he’s occupied over the years. It’s a treat, then, to see Hayman and his Long Parliament support tonight. Hayman himself, decked out in oversized blazer and scholarly specs could have been cryogenically awakened from his 90s heyday, and the music itself, old and new, sounds timeless – a reminder of what a wealth of fine material he’s put out over the years.

The harmonies on “Out Of My League”, a Darren Hayman and the Secretary Modern cut, are gorgeous and so elongated, the frontman requires a quick puff on his inhaler when they finish. The “electricity pylons” on ”Calling Out Your Name” sound positively poetic. But it’s an oldie that steals the show; “The Hymn for the Alcohol” from the seminal 1999 Hefner record The Fidelity Wars has them swaying at the front.

“Isn’t grey hair just a sign of a new dawn?” sings Dan Willson, half a dozen songs deep, before a busy Scala this evening. And right enough, the couple of years since these eyes last clocked him on a London stage have been kind to the man who goes under the moniker Withered Hand. Haircut, less battered guitar and a stronger, more potent armoury of songs. He’s a few years older than the “wastrel” that producedGood News and, while he’s hardly a Renaissance Man, long-term fans will notice a more confident performer and one who is, tonight, bang on form.

New Gods, Edinburgh-based Withered Hand’s second album, was released earlier this year, but the skeleton of the record was given a stripped back couple of outings at Union Chapel and Islington Assembly Hall a couple of years ago. Tonight, he brings fully formed, booming renditions. Compared to Good News, the songs are fuller and more musically ambitious. The humour is still there and, while they don’t pack the same immediate hook as some of the debut set, the record has proven its strength in the months since its release and has grown into one of the finest the year has seen.

Some of the best elements of New Gods that are audible through the stereo are brought sharply into focus when played live. There’s a real rollicking feel to tracks such as “Heart Heart” and “Horseshoe”, which is reciprocated in full by the London crowd. On the likes of “Black Tambourine”, dedicated to Pam Berry (the singer in the band of the same name, who has become a regular fixture in the Withered Hand line-up) and the lovely New Gods, which is played out as an encore, the jangly arpeggios which sound so subtle on record seem to permeate through the foundations of the Scala, to nestle stubbornly in your ear for the rest of the evening.

This is certainly the tightest Withered Hand performance I’ve seen. Of the older material, “Religious Songs” and “Love in the Time of Ecstasy” were always going to be received most warmly. They’re delivered with the expected aplomb, and there’s a real sense of cohesion and musicianship among the band – perhaps more obvious than before – that adds an exciting new element. The crashing percussion escalates as they build up to the emphatic chorus of “Religious Songs” (“how does he really expect to be happy, when he listens to death metal bands?”), which is bellowed back at the band with oxymoronical triumph.

It’s this odd sense of paradox that makes Withered Hand such a rewarding listen. The songs are often aural flagellations, but are delivered in a key of hope and tonight, with real vigour. This was an excellent performance, punctuated with the customary self-deprecating jokes and awkward humour, from a man and a band who, you suspect, will always be warmly received in this part of the world.

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Withered Hand – New Gods

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FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT

It’s not hard to see why Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand, was quick to be labelled ‘anti-folk’ when he first appeared circa-2008: everything about him cried ramshackle and raw. There were the grainy old YouTube videos of Willson playing along with members of Meursault at an Edinburgh house party; the acoustic guitar, plastered with the logo of K Records and other indie stickers; the voice, on first listen frail and injured, and the underdog tales, during which you’re sure that Willson is never more than a heartbeat away from taking himself down a peg or two.

But scratch beneath the surface, and the tag doesn’t seem so fitting. The voice, with time, becomes warm and lovely, as meek and sweet as a wish in a well. Superb debut set Good News was a search for substance, for identity and kinship, for spirituality and love. What, in this hyper-connected, post-everything age of absurdity, could be more societal and folky than the anxiety of social awkwardness?

Album number two, New Gods, doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Willson is still capable of turning out the loserisms on request, evidenced by song titles such as “Fall Apart” and “Life of Doubt” (indeed, he describes himself as ‘pigeon-toed’ on the record’s opening line), but he has clearly spent the intermittent five years refining his craft, returning with a sound that’s fuller without sacrificing the tunes, and songs which are more philosophical than slapstick. Willson has taken another step away from the anti-folk misnomer, determinedly embracing a wonderful brand of Byrdsian jangle-pop and in the process, producing a record which makes up for the frustratingly long wait with aplomb.

Good News reflected on a childhood spent as a Jehovah’s Witness and formative years chasing punk music and failed romance. This retrospection returns occasionally – the brilliant “Fall Apart”, in which Willson regrets the adolescent tragedy of feigned indifference – but his pen flows more contemporaneously and broadly here. There are tales from the road, the dustbowl Americana of “California” and the gorgeous harmonies of “Love Over Desire”, and he takes aim once more at the preciousness of organised religion on “King of Hollywood” (“Some of you should get with my God/he hates about everything”). Each song is delivered with customary wit, perhaps less aserbic than on Good News, but equally rich and self-probing.

And while the takeaway from the debut was the one-liners, New Gods is all about the music. The sound has more depth, yes, but nothing is over-egged. There are more hooks than a pirates’ convention, and subime melodies throughout. A few reference points fly past your ears more than once. Darren Hayman has frequently performed with Withered Hand, and Hefner’s influence on tracks such as “Between Love and Ruin” is marked. The classic power pop of Big Star and the Byrds can be heard in the arpeggios and jangles of “Black Tambourine”, while “Fall Apart” and “Horseshoe” have a surprising hint of 90s indie pop about them.

New Gods is an unusually good album, and is best encapsulated by the title track, the kind of song R.E.M. lived in the shadow of for a quarter of a century. “Now tell me we are not all the same,” goes Willson’s stargazing philosophy, slotting beautifully between the dreamy rolls of mandolin and bass. It’s one of the loveliest songs you could ever expect to hear; a lucid moment of perfection from a songwriter whose creativity continues to feed off his own imperfections.

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From the archive: Meursault – Islington Assembly Hall, London 06/11/12

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Photograph by Sonny Malhotra from The Brixton Windmill, 2011.

FIRST PUBLISHED ON 12 NOVEMBER 2012 IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT 

Much like the cup with the cracked handle in his denigration of “terrible town planning” ‘Love in the Time of Ecstasy’, the appeal of opening act Withered Hand – aka Dan Willson – is in his imperfections. And so it plays out in front of a slowly swelling, partisan crowd in the gorgeous Islington Assembly Hall tonight. The parts – his beaten up guitar, gently cracking voice and slightly incoherent preambles – all add to a captivating sum in this stripped back acoustic warm-up.

He’s joined initially by Malcolm Benzie (Woodpigeon) on mandolin, with Rob St John adding harmonium to the ranks for the second half. The opening flurry of new tracks is soothingly pleasant: both ‘Love Over Desire’ and ‘Anyone’s Guess’ suggest a more countrified Withered Hand than we’ve yet been witness to. Things really take off when the trio (with Benzie swapping his mandolin for a fiddle) tackle some of the standout tracks from Willson’s debut, Good News.

In contrast, Rob St John, accompanied by a veritable who’s who of Edinburgh’s music scene, couldn’t be starker. Last year’s Weald was measured, fragile and, outside a few circles, criminally overlooked. The deliberation is apparent on stage too, even if the songs take on a whole new vibrancy with the backing of a full band. Every note, distortion and lunge of his baritone Lancastrian voice, seems to be in its right place. A searing guitar solo on the tail-end of the excellent ‘Sargasso Sea’ silences even the most persistent chatterers at the back. St John saves the most poignant moment for last. A rousing, heartfelt version of the ever-emotional ‘Shallow Brown’ dedicated to a recently passed friend steals the show.

Depending at which stage of Meursault’s career you’ve caught them live, you could have been greeted by anywhere between one and 20 members. Tonight’s cast comes in at 11, including all the evening’s previous performers (bar Withered Hand) and the Pumpkin Seeds string section. Given the grandiosity of the occasion, it seems lazy – almost clichéd – to start with the same point that every other review of Meursault has ever started out with. But, y’know, it’s kind of unavoidable.

Even among the maelstrom of strings, guitar, keys, harmonium and Neil Pennycook’s voice rises with towering bellicosity. Meursault are a band known for their punishing touring schedule and it seems astonishing that he can summon the same stupefying volume and emotion from his larynx every time he opens his mouth.

The set lifts predominantly from this year’s stellar Something for the Weakened and as befits the occasion, the band is bang on form. The strings are, naturally, at their most effective during the quieter numbers – and it’s a shame that during the more rollicking numbers (of which there are many), they’re not higher in the mix. It’s a small gripe though. For there’s a real celebratory mood on show tonight, one that’s hard not to get caught up in. ‘Thumb’ is gently rousing. ‘Settling’ – one of the tracks of 2012 – is delivered with startling aplomb. The folky ‘Untitled’ is a welcome change of pace on record, and so it proves in the flesh.

‘Mamie’, a song about Pennycook’s grandmother, has the same impact as ‘Shallow Brown’ had for St John earlier in the evening. A sombre account of someone descending further into old age, it has the frontman hunkered down, mike in hand. He seems exhausted, spent and as Meursault leave the stage, there’s the sense that this song, that this entire show has been the culmination of something special. 2012 has been a fine year for Meursault and tonight, the band and their extended musical family revels in it.

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