The problem with midweek gigs in Exeter are that the Gala bingo hall is open and that can only mean one thing, no car parking spaces…..yes folks, we spent the best part of 20 minutes driving from 'one secret spot' to another in search of a loading bay that was not being used until 7am the next morning, alas, we ALMOST had to pay for a multi-storey, something I am not going to do unless the worst comes to the absolute worst. Fortunately, on our 3rd trip around the block, we discovered 2 spaces about 30 feet apart, we snuck in, packed our bags and were off to the Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre to check out the Ben Watt Trio…..
We arrived at the venue and were delighted to see that a Bristol (formerly Plymouth) based act called Meadowlark were acting as support, I had previously played the lead track from their ‘Three Six Five’ EP a few weeks prior on my groundbreaking and soon to be award winning podcast ‘The Listening Post’, where it received some great feedback from my army of regular subscribers.
I wasn’t surprised to see a more ‘experienced’ audience at the venue, I use the term ‘experienced’ in place of words like ‘mature’ or ‘middle aged’, the latter befitting my age bracket perfectly….
Meadowlark took to stage at the stroke of 8pm and launched into a beautiful, personal track called ‘Family Tree’, the stripped back vocals, accompanied by keys and gently strummed electric guitar was the perfect antidote to a hard day in the office. Their second track ‘Fly’ was predominantly keyboard led with Dan bringing up the rear with his guitar and bass drum skills, really adding to the track. Kate then strapped up her acoustic while Dan took to the keys to play another spellbindingly beautiful and intimate track.
I was sure that Meadowlark was a trio and towards the end of their set, Dan disappeared backstage, leaving a rather bemused looking Kate at the keyboard, not knowing what was going on, he came bounding back onstage accompanied with the 3rd member of the band, ‘Shegg’ (an egg shaped percussion instrument) that Dan used most effectively on their final track of the evening.
Meadowlark have amassed a very large following in a relatively short space of time, if you get to see them in a smaller, more intimate venue then please make every effort to do so, you’ll be so glad you did.
After a short interval to move Meadowlark’s gear off stage and prepare it for Ben Watt and Co, we chatted briefly to Dan from Meadowlark and agreed to conduct a full interview after the show.
The lights dimmed and Ben Watt, Bernard Butler and Martin Ditcham strode up the steps to the stage. They opened with ‘Hendra’, lifted from his 2014 album of the same name, its atmospheric soundscape and beautifully plucked guitar strings setting a solid foundation for Bernard Butler to overlay his remarkable guitar skills on his rather gorgeous black Gibson 61’ custom ES 330….not that I’m a fan of his work at all!
Ben announced that this was the first time that he has played as a trio and seeing as he had Bernard Butler and Martin Ditcham behind him, I would say that this is more than just a trio, more of a supergroup in the making! Ben’s in-between song chatter was entertaining and very interesting, I for one was not aware that when he was writing his 1982 5 track EP ‘Summer into Winter’, he wrote and asked Robert Wyatt’s record label if he would like to feature, they said no, so unperturbed, he found a way to Wyatt directly and asked him personally, he said yes….
More tracks from ‘Hendra’ followed, ‘The Gun’, ‘Nathaniel’, ‘Forget’, ‘The Heart is a Mirror’, Ben changed from his acoustic to his telecaster and also sported a splendid looking Gretsch. Bernard continued to dazzle with his effortless playing, switching occasionally to his red Gibson 61’ ES 355 complete with its Bigsby arm.
Ben regaled a tale about a house that he and his brother used to visit, this was the inspiration for a song called ‘Bricks and Wood’, which he went on to play perfectly, his soul laid bare, raw emotion, back to basics, really showing his ability as a singer songwriter.
Bernard and Martin left the stage, leaving Ben to play a new track that he admitted the Exeter crowd were the first to hear, it was called ‘Hello, Michael’ which sounded exquisite with stripped back acoustic, no effects or padding to carry him.
Martin Ditcham did a grand job of providing the rhythm bed for both Bernard and Ben to play from, he is such a talented drummer and percussionist and I even managed to grab a few minutes with him after the show to chat about the rest of the UK tour and a short trip to Japan in November.
After the last song, the trio exited the stage, did whatever bands do backstage whilst the crowd start clapping and cheering and then burst back in to perform another 3 songs, ending with ’25 December’ which Ben had written in new York when he was visiting many moons ago alongside Tracey Thorn.
It was a great evening of music and entertainment, a chance to see 3 British heavyweights in the same room in such intimate surroundings was a real treat and one that I feel will be hard pushed to top. I guess the highlight of the evening for me was chatting to Martin after the show, meeting Ben Watt and spending a couple of minutes chatting to Bernard about his guitars and seeing him in 1993 at the Exeter Lemongrove when he played an early SUEDE gig (21 years ago….)
Check HERE for future live gigs, Meadowlark are playing with Ben until November 10th prior to them jetting off to Japan. Ben is playing a string of solo dates in America until early December.
Review by Steve Muscutt
All photography Bruce Benson www.241photography.co.uk