Live Review | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | Review by Allan Wilkinson
The flags were out once again at the Wheelhouse in Wombwell as part of the Barnsley House Concerts series. As the red maple leaf fluttered above the wooden cabin, with its cosily decorated interior featuring signed promotional pictures and posters of former guests including the likes of Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart, Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden, Corinne West and Doug Cox and Carrie Elkin and Robby Hecht, and that’s just the duos, the room filled once again with a capacity audience keen to be a part of another quality night of acoustic music here in the heart of South Yorkshire. Canadian singer-songwriter guitarist Stephen Fearing totally missed the fluttering flag as he made his way down to the Wheelhouse from the main house, not once but twice, noticing it later during dinner at the Jones’s. Hedley Jones, a local music enthusiast with one eye on the local folk scene and the other on what’s coming over from across the pond, likes to make his guests as welcome as the audiences they attract and both of which are rapidly expanding in numbers. I arrived early and made my way down to the cabin to have a few words with the songwriter before his performance. Relaxed and talkative, Fearing was happy to talk about his new album The Man Who Married Music, a life on the road and what it’s like to have a Juno on your mantelpiece. It’s quite right that The Man Who Married Music collection should be released at this time in Stephen Fearing’s life. Twenty years is a good enough career span to take into account; to look back upon and in a way, reassess. The songs that make up the collection are intelligent but at the same time instantly accessible and even though a couple of decades in an artist’s career would normally see vast changes in style and attitude, Fearing has remained true to his craft and has maintained a consistency in the high standard of song writing, recording and live performance over the years. On this, the new retrospective album, many of the songs included sit well alongside one another despite being separated by many years. Tonight in the intimate setting of the Wheelhouse, Fearing appeared relaxed as he began his set, selecting a handful of songs from the album as well as a number of songs that may well have made up an alternative retrospective CD. It’s nice when you have so many ‘keepers’ to choose from. Seated upon a high stool with his acoustic guitar slung across his lap and plugged into an elaborate device, which Fearing confesses, is only there to serve as a tuner, with no further amplification required, the singer songwriter started his first set of the night with one of the new songs included on the new album, “The Big East West”. Fearing speaks of travelling as if it has always been a part of his life. “I’ve been travelling since I was very young” he said, recalling his formative years in Canada before moving to Ireland as a child. The song “Born to be a Traveler” was inspired by something his mother said after Fearing invited her on tour with him. “I get it now” she said “you were born to be a traveller”, a phrase that would not be missed by any songwriter worth his salt. Speaking of the travelling life as if it makes up the very fabric of his bones, Fearing goes on to point out that this is not only a genetic thing but also a geographical trait that reflects the very nature of being a Canadian musician, applying the Descartian theory, “I tour therefore I am”. Originally recorded for his regular band Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ album Bark, “Born to be a Traveler” sums up life on the road pretty well. The theme of travelling weaves a thread through much of Fearing’s work and the sense of homesickness is nowhere more prevalent than in “The Longest Road”, a beautifully evocative song from Fearing’s 1993 album Assassin’s Apprentice. His wanderlust calls out to Canada, just as Joni Mitchell did in her gorgeous “A Case of You” back in the late Sixties. The song still packs the same punch as it did back the 1990s and recalls the live version to be found on Fearing’s live album So Many Times of 2000, the choice cut for the new compilation. Fearing is almost apologetic about releasing a best of collection, even after twenty years or so in the music business, comparing such a thing with the likes of David Soul or Bread. His record company originally wanted the collection to be called Stephen Fearing’s Greatest Hits, but as Fearing rightly pointed out, in order to do this surely you need first of all to have had a hit. The songwriter tells of how he finally decided upon the song choices for the album, whilst he was in the process of relocating to Halifax, Nova Scotia on the East Coast of Canada from Ontario on the West Coast. Fearing had a two day drive across country and during that time, he listened to everything he ever recorded and imagined initially that the songs would just stand out. Unfortunately, all that really came out of that experience was the title song “The Man Who Married Music”, which he stuck with; the rest was up to friends and associates. Aside from the songs, Fearing is also an accomplished guitar player and tonight he demonstrated the art of finger style guitar playing with a short piece called “Whoville”, short due to the fact that he originally recorded the tune for an album which carried the stipulation that no track should be longer than one minute. Describing the instrumental piece as a Morris Dance in the style of Dr Seuss and John Philip Sousa, Fearing took command of his instrument and played with the assurance of a seasoned guitar player. In the second set of the night, Fearing tagged his impressive “James Medley” onto the end of “Dog on a Chain”, which revealed an accomplished playing dexterity, with a medley of well-known ragtime, jazz and blues tunes. Not known as an overtly political songwriter, Fearing’s “Man of War”, originally from Industrial Lullaby (1997) tackles the troubled days of Northern Ireland but tonight, the edge was softened by a gorgeous coda as the song segued beautifully into John Martyn’s timeless “Don’t Want To Know” in tribute to the late musician. The so called ‘hurting songs part of the set’, which Fearing explains is all about ‘love gone completely wrong’, included three poignant songs, “Vigil” from Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ Kings of Love album, a brand new as yet unrecorded song “Hungry For Love” and “If I Catch You Crying”, a song co-written with Belfast’s Andy White, all showing a more sensitive side of Fearing’s work. Concluding with the requested “Beguiling Eyes”, probably the songwriter’s most celebrated song and certainly the song most covered by other artists, Fearing brought the evening to a close, with a sublime instrumental version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” sewn into the song midway through, once again confirming Canada’s credentials for providing the world with first rate songwriters.