We arrived at The Phoenix Arts Centre, it was a balmy evening, the chatter of patrons sat outside the bar, making the most of the sunshine prior to the early evening chill setting in. My partner in crime this evening was meeting someone he had been introduced to on Facebook a year or so ago, they're both singer songwriters so when they recognised each other from their inch sized profile images, my photographer and I made haste to check out the support act whilst they were chatting about chord progressions, strings and guitars (as musicians often do).
In the auditorium, Luke Sital Singh had just launched into his opening track, raw, slightly distorted guitar allowing his voice to float over it's electric-ness, ranging from an almost whisper to a restrained guttural roar in no time at all. His set consisted of sad songs that he offered with tongue in cheek humour, silence abound whilst he performed, you could have heard a pin drop.
Mixing his sound between acoustic and electric and later, seeing him on the keyboard, demonstrating that he is certainly no one trick pony. His penultimate track was rather upbeat but before he played it he said not to worry as he would be ending with a 'nice miserable song' which generated a cheer from the back of the room. This wasn't the first time he had played Exeter, he had visited a long time ago on his first tour "When nobody knew who he was", I dare say that he had amassed a number of followers since then, I for one will certainly be checking out his material following his performance.
It's at this point I will hand over to my colleague's friend (Law Turley) who is a big fan of Conor O'Brien and wanted to express to the world her experience of the man, his band and the live experience that she was about to indulge in....
Every single musician who loves and plays music can list for you a few of those crystalline, life changing moments when they witness a live performance that changes the way they think about performing. For non-musicians a great live gig is just that; an amazing event, something that makes them feel something different inside and - if they're lucky - makes them feel somehow unique and special, like the person on stage is singing the lyrics of that song directly to them. For musicians, and particularly for songwriters, it's something different. It's a moment that focuses all the feelings you have about yourself as a performer and a writer and suddenly shows you this is how it could be. This is what someone living their life as a great singer/songwriter looks and sounds like. And seeing Conor O'Brien on Jools Holland in April 2010 - alone on stage with his acoustic guitar - was what that was for me.
And, weirdly, it came at a very particular time in my life when it was exactly what I needed to see. Having spent almost 5 years before that night singing and and writing songs in private, and then a couple more playing and singing close harmonies as part of a four-piece band, I'd started to suspect that maybe what I really needed to do was take these songs I'd written (alone in the privacy of my room, and that I was actually mortally terrified of sharing with anyone) and go out and play them to actual people. And not just any people, big fucking roomfuls of people who were used to being entertained by über-talented, twenty-year-younger women, with about half a metric ton more confidence than I had and noticeably higher breasts. But that night, as I sat half-cut in front of the TV, mulling horribly self-destructive thoughts like that over in my mind, Conor O'Brien (billed rather confusingly as 'Villagers') stepped into a little circle of light with his Yairi's soundhole smothered with black duck tape and blew me completely away.
Five years later and it probably sounds ridiculously maudlin to say that I feel as if Conor and I have been on a journey together. 'Becoming A Jackal' was such an important album for me because, much in the same way that Bon Iver's 'For Emily...' had a few years before and John Grant's 'Pale Green Ghosts' did a few years later, it proved to me that it was possible to realise a vision solely as a solo musician. That it was possible to formulate an album, from start to finish, and armed with just with the sweat of your brow put those songs down exactly as you wanted them, note for note and lyric for lyric. Despite never having even met Conor when 'Jackal' came out, I found myself immensely protective of his first solo album, only playing it to people I knew would appreciate the intense effort and commitment I understood had gone into it. I remember, for example, feeling incredibly hurt and angry when one friend described it as "a bit self-indulgent" and barely speaking to them for weeks afterwards as a result.
So, as you might imagine, 'Awayland' was greatly anticipated by me. I'd seen Conor and the boys a few times live in between, and was fascinated with what I saw as Conor's very deliberate and pragmatic regression into playing with a band again. That said, the one gig that stuck most in my mind was on at a tiny sub-stage at Glastonbury that counted only me, my husband and the bands' families as audience members, partly because it was a chance to relive the magic of seeing Conor alone on a stage again, but mostly because - afterwards - I managed to grab a moment to ask him and Tommy (McLaughlin) about the little parlour I'd so fallen in love with. Still dithering around the edges of the solo singer/songwriter role I saw Conor's little Yairi as totemlike. As if owning this particular guitar might mean that I too could step into a spotlight and deliver the songs I'd been writing with the same self-possession and authority.
I loved 'Awayland', it was a beautiful creature. I remember hearing 'The Bell' live the previous year at the Eden Project and feeling as if it was the culmination of Conor + the band, and that nothing could surpass that. But when I listened to the whole album through for the first time the song that reduced me to tears was 'In a Newfound Land', and - despite everything I'd felt about Conor + the band - nothing could have been more personal.
But I suppose it's my job to talk about this particular gig at the Phoenix isn't it? To talk about the new album (Dear Arithmetic), about the first single (Courage) and about the individual, standout moments of the evening, but honestly? That would be hard. Because if I'm completely honest, the whole evening was entirely coloured for me by the incredible feeling of pride and admiration I have for someone who, at what seems like maybe the peak of their musical career, decides that now - right now - is the time to announce to the world that yeah, there's this whole thing about me you didn't know and now - shit - doesn't that make you view everything I've written and sung and broken your fucking heart with up to this point in entirely new and different way? Doesn't that make you listen to every lyric and painful cadence through another filter?
Every track of the new album is beautiful; authentic, perfectly focused and entirely direct, as if - having performed a kind of psychological laser surgery - Conor has now revealed a whole new way to write and sing and play. We see him as he genuinely is, and suddenly all the lyrics make perfect sense and are doubly devastating as a result. 'The Waves', 'Jackal', 'My Lighthouse', every one reviewed and renewed by the refreshed, distilled and refocused O'Brien are like brand new songs heard for the first time. I confess I welled up and then cried like a twat during 'Pieces', and to be honest it had always been my least favourite song from the first album.
The band stripped back to the bare essentials; Danny (Snow) now on upright bass, Cormac (McCurran) on keys and the drummer, heavy on the brushes on kit and sparing brass, provide the perfect visual metaphor for the new sound, with the only new addition to the crew being a harpist. The stage lit with a single standard lamp that cast a warm apricot glow throughout was also an affecting touch: welcome to my home everyone, I'm happy to let you in.
I wish I could say more about 'Dear Arithmetic', but I haven't listened to it enough yet. Ask me again next month when I've spent several evenings alone with it and a bottle or two of room temperature Ravenswood. Ask me about this evening at The Phoenix though and I'll tell you it was a milestone moment. One of those rare and magical gigs that I will look back at for years to come, and relive the memory of watching someone on stage with a bunch of his songs that he was willing to be 100% vulnerable with, surrounded by a few hundred people who completely supported and admired that and - yes - loved him for it. And I'll remember that I made him laugh when I reminded him about that gig at the Crow's Nest at Glastonbury and how his Yairi - now sadly dead - was so full of Tommy's cackhanded wiring that it looked like someone had jammed a colander full of spaghetti inside. And maybe that will be enough to keep me warm whilst I try again to write a half decent song about something important to me, that maybe I'll be willing to play solo in front of a roomful of people with my own Yairi some day.
We did manage to get back stage after their performance where we chatted to Conor, Law asking some very pertinent questions, causing him to almost recoil, as if he had met his match in relation to music, his music and everything he stood for. Law asked him about his Yairi guitar and about his new album and how his sound had evolved, we eventually let him go to meet his fans at the merch table after we had allowed him to escape our spotlight....
Photography by Julian Baird © WWW.JULIANBAIRD.COM