Live Review | The Regent, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson
At the tender age of thirteen, I had plenty of distractions to take my mind off algebra. One was reading Melody Maker from cover to cover, as well as The New Musical Express, Disc (and Music Echo) and Sounds. Another was Emma Peel, for obvious reasons that I won’t go into here. But also at thirteen, I was in love with the mystery woman on the front cover of an LP called One House Left Standing, which featured an atmospheric black and white shot of a wide-eyed fresh-faced Pre-Raphaelite beauty with windswept hair, perched upon what appeared to be the axle of some abandoned railway carriage wheels along a dockside wasteland, which I later would discover to be a town called Middlesbrough. It could’ve been Timbuktu for all I cared, for my eyes were inescapably and exclusively drawn to those staring right back at me. To a schoolboy with a vivid imagination and a sense of adventure, Claire Hamill was inviting me to come play some illicit game by the river, but shhhh, don’t tell the teacher. The two and a half weeks wages from my paper round went towards buying this LP from Foxes Records in Doncaster, for the princely sum of £2.49 in the recently decimalised Britain, but it was worth every single 6am alarm call. That record languished in my painfully pedantic – yet necessary – alphabetically filed record collection for thirty-six years, sandwiched right there in-between Hackensack and Hawkwind, until tonight, when it came out to play for the first time in ages, only to return to its rightful place four hours later but with the added inscription, ‘To Alan with love, Claire Hamill x’. It’s not difficult to fall in love with Claire Hamill twice in thirty-seven years, for she has such an infectious personality. With several albums behind her and a chaotic career that has seen her recording classic bed-sit singer-songwriter albums, providing the UK with our very own Carole King, our very own Joni, as well as stints with Wishbone Ash and collaborations with such prog rock/experimental luminaries as Steve Howe and Vangelis and even some forays into jazz, she now returns to the stage armed only with an acoustic guitar, an enduring smile and a bag full of memorable songs. Tonight at the Monday Music Club at the Regent, Claire performed several of those songs that have spanned her thirty-seven year career. I could wax lyrical about how apt the metaphorical opener “Phoenix” was to a so called ‘fan’ who managed to miss out on an earlier incarnation of Claire Hamill in the early Seventies, due to algebra and distance. But I was making up for lost time, rising up from the ashes in an almost embarrassingly flirtatious manner. “The Man Who Couldn’t See Tomorrow’s Sunshine” again from the first album, has lost nothing in the intervening years and still sounds as fresh today as it did when I first encountered it in 1971. She confessed to me before the show that the young woman on the front of the first album that had impressed me so, was in fact a girl who was at that time still at school. So, the little I did learn in the Maths class enabled me to figure out we were more contemporary than I had first thought. “Japanese Lullaby” and “Glastonbury”, both from 1988’s Love in the Afternoon album are songs from quite a different era than those of the One House Left Standing period. ‘New Age’ is probably the choice term for those recordings, yet as solo songs, with just a single acoustic guitar, they are comfortable bedfellows to the earlier ‘bed-sit’ songs. No better example of this is in “The Moon is a Powerful Lover” from the Touchpaper album. The heavy power ballad treatment on the recorded version was completely replaced with a sensitive touch tonight. Playfully, Claire segued into “Bésame Mucho”, which I have to confess, I had all on refraining from demonstrating my own peculiar version of the Rumba, right there in front of the stage. You cannot escape the tangible grasp on romance that Claire Hamill possesses, her songs are so tightly packed with it, the seams cannot possibly contain the strain and the waves of emotion tend to flood out like a veritable tsunami. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, Claire provides an extraordinarily candid flip side to love and romance with “I’d Rather Have Sex with a Stranger”, effectively giving up on love in favour of casual sex, ensuring he’s gone by dawn. Confessional songs such as this are what we all love about Joni Mitchell and there is little wonder Claire has been used in the same sentence as Joni for decades, in fact tonight, in paying tribute to Mitchell, Claire tagged “Both Sides Now” onto the end of “Singer”. Returning to the first album with “Where Are Your Smiles At” was for me, one of the highlights of the night. Singers tend to rarely improve with age and much of the youthful sparkle often gets lost somewhere along the way. Claire however, manages to hold onto that youthful spirit and her voice tonight was remarkably fresh. After a stunning “You Take My Breath Away”, Claire returned to the stage for her regular finisher, ironically the song that started it all off in the first place, the jaunty “Baseball Blues” proving once again that time alters nothing really. The fact that I missed all of Claire’s early Seventies concert appearances was finally compensated for tonight at The Regent, and probably in that one song alone. During an unfortunate career lull in more recent years, Claire Hamill was astonished to discover that her reputation as a fine song writer was being rescued by chance, when the beautiful “You Take My Breath Away” was recorded by Eva Cassidy and released posthumously on her number one selling album American Tune. The music industry is littered with these quirks of fate and we have to be thankful for them, but I can’t help but wonder, why do we allow our rich heritage of talented performers to slip into obscurity? Is it because our tastes change? Is it to make room for the bright young things? I’d like to think there’s plenty of room for Claire Hamill, for in all honesty, she takes up so little space. It’s great to have her back.