Brooks Williams | Live Review | Cast Theatre, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.03.21
I’ve always considered it odd, if not nigh on impossible, to review a live gig if you’re not actually there, yet in these wildly extraordinary times, this is precisely the way it goes. Under normal circumstances, just prior to a show, there would be the mandatory swift beer at the bar, a chat to one or two familiar faces in the foyer and perhaps a brief perusal over items at the concessions stall as we await the final call for showtime. Then there would be the awkward search for the seat that matches the number on your ticket, which occasionally involves climbing over an elderly couple on the end row seats or scaling the east face of the large gentleman in seat number 26, who has already taken off his shoes and stretched out his legs as if he were on a beach in the Algarve. Not tonight though, as I take a leisurely stroll from my kitchen to the PC, with a freshly brewed coffee in hand, then immediately settle in front of the wide screen, flanked by two purposeful speakers, positioned for best effect, I await the arrival of the Georgia-born singer and guitarist Brooks Williams, who is probably still backstage at the Cast Theatre in Doncaster’s deserted town centre, just four miles from where I am sitting, awaiting his curtain call. Brooks has been to Doncaster before on numerous occasions and I’ve been fortunate enough to catch his performances at both the Regent Hotel and at the Ukrainian Centre, home of the Roots Music Club, either on his own as a soloist or with Boo Hewerdine in the guise of State of the Union. Tonight though, Brooks is very much on his own, armed with a couple of guitars, which as we wait, are positioned centre stage before a backdrop of deep red curtains. Just prior to the live stream, I familiarise myself with a bunch of online videos that Brooks recently made with a handful of respected musicians, including Rab Noakes, Christine Collister, Katie Spencer and Aaron Catlow; not a bad support show it has to be said. Unfortunately, the initial live stream wasn’t as successful as planned, which Brooks was completely unaware of, prompting a mixed reception from the fans who watched online, ranging between empathetic understanding, that these are exceptional times and things can go wrong, to anger and frustration from those eager to see Brooks on stage. Despite carrying on regardless as backstage staff scurried around in an attempt to fix the problem, the minutes counted down at a terrific rate, with the online event collapsing into mini disaster territory. Nevertheless, through the efforts of the staff at Cast Theatre, a glitch-free recording was uploaded just a few days after and redistributed to original ticket holders, who could then enjoy the set once again in the comfort of their own armchair and this time, with great sound and with the added ability to stop proceedings half way through to replenish their respective beverages without missing a single note. Brooks looks completely relaxed onstage, which was filmed from two angles, opening with “Frank Delandry”, a song he claims to be his most requested. ‘If I had a greatest hit, this would be it’ he says. The curious thing about this concert is that it could easily have been filmed in one of the smaller spaces, but in true showbiz fashion, Brooks was given the entire main auditorium to play with, which gives the performance a sense of priority. We tend to imagine the applause, which is reduced to just a ripple from the handful of theatre staff present, who attempt to bring atmosphere to what is obviously a fine performance. “Get out your hankies’ says Brooks as a prelude to one of the set’s great performances, just before launching into the old Paul Metsers song “Farewell to the Gold”, a song lifted from Nic Jones’ seminal Penguin Eggs album, which Brooks claims to have left him ‘gobsmacked’ upon first hearing it. Planted firmly into a pair of cowboy boots, with his long grey locks positioned as if blowing on the prairie, Brooks continues with “King of California”, bringing the spirit and expanse of his homeland to this very much locked down South Yorkshire venue. Later in the hour-long performance, Brooks transforms his acoustic guitar into a workable banjo for the old fiddle tune “Elk River Blues”, which provides a warm interlude midway through the show. With further mention of such musicians as Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt, Brooks was only too happy to pay tribute to one of his all time heroes, who would’ve been celebrating his birthday, with a bluesy reading of Watson’s timeless “Sitting on Top of the World”. Concluding with the Joni Mitchell inspired “Faint at Heart”, a new song to his repertoire, together with a little rock ‘n roll number in the form of “Jump That Train”, Brooks was relieved of his customary encore duties, as he headed back southward, either by road or rail. As a long time reviewer of live music, which has been majorly disrupted by current events, evident in this being the first Northern Sky live review since March 2020, I came to it with trepidation, believing such events cannot possibly recreate the unique quality of a live performance, but I’m pleasantly surprised. After the initial glitches with the streaming, I found the concert in the end, to be most enjoyable and with a desire to see more such concerts, and to see Brooks once again in person as soon as this nightmare is over.