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.
Martin Simpson | The Live Room, Caroline Street Social Club, Saltaire West Yorkshire | Live Feature and Photos by Keith Belcher | 01.06.21
“I cannot tell you how much it means to me to stand on a stage and remind myself of who I am…” so said Martin Simpson just before the encore to his first of four socially distanced shows at The Live Room (TLR) , Caroline Street Social Club, Saltaire, West Yorkshire on 21st and the 23rd May 2021. On the 21st it was cold and wet outside. It was also Martin’s Wedding anniversary. Martin was playing to a sold out small crowd of about sixty people, you wouldn’t have known there were only sixty from the appreciation and applause. That of course is far less than he usually plays to but times are still strange and things are what they are. Martin had earlier remarked on how excited he was to be standing on a real stage, it being like a dream come true. Full marks to Ron and Hilary at TLR for keeping the music going at the club over the last fourteen months of you know what. Martin’s original gig was scheduled for June 2020, postponed to October or November 2020 and then eventually taking place in May 2021. The demand for tickets was such that four shows with socially distance and therefore limited audiences were staged. We and he all got there in the end. Music from Saltaire has continued in the form of virtual live streams and a brief period of socially distanced gigs which came to a premature end with the wonderful Edgelarks in October 2020 when the area entered tier three restrictions, scuppering plans for actual in person gigs until now. The next few gigs prior to June 21st will also be streamed live as well as to a limited, socially distanced audience. Until full attendance can resume all events will have two shows, one at 1830 and another at 2100. The 1830 show being streamed live. I must confess to some nervousness at rejoining society and almost but not quite mingling. However, changes to the layout and running of the club to ensure as much safety as possible had taken place. One way systems, drinks ordering apps, table drinks delivery, Perspex screens and repositioning of merchandise desk are amongst the safeguards made. At the end of the night I felt quite relaxed (even without any alcohol-I was driving) and thoroughly enjoyed experiencing live music after a fourteen months enforced vacation. Bronwynne Brent on March 15th 2020 seemed a VERY long time ago in a VERY different world. I suspect Martin was also quite nervous about taking to the stage again. We can quite easily forget that performing to a live crowd rather than a camera lens is a totally different experience. If he was worried he didn’t need to be. Yes, there were some minor instances of forgetting words, not surprising, you try remembering all those words after not really performing for a year or more, I doubt it will happen in the later shows. The guitar work was as good as ever which is without saying amongst the best you are going to hear from anyone, anywhere! It made you remember what live music is really about and what you had been missing. There’s an energy flow from artist to audience to artist back to audience which builds and builds through a successful show. Some musicians have put away their instruments during recent times but certainly not Martin, he had obviously been constantly playing constantly throughout. He released a new album called Home Recordings during lockdown, recorded in Sheffield between March and July 2020.
Hilary opened the show thanking the audience for having faith and sticking with everything so far. Martin started with what has been a relative constant of his past shows, Leadbelly’s “In The Pines” with familiar beautiful and very precise bottleneck playing. This was followed with three songs from Home recordings. The gig was unusual in that there was only one Martin Simpson penned song, this being “Ridgeway”. I was photographing during Lyle Lovett’s “Family Reserve” which was a little daunting as there is a constant refrain of ‘Put Down That Camera’…. I carried on regardless and didn’t take it personally! All other songs were either covers or traditionals, all with Martin’s very distinctive touch and style. He often seems able to put more depth and dexterity in his tuning than many guitarists are capable of during a full song. Regarding cover songs, if you’re going to do them then why not sing the late John Prine’s “Angel of Montgomery”, Robin Williamson’s “October Song” from The Incredible String band’s first album, Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” and Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run The Game”. Martin unusually restrained himself to guitar throughout, no banjo appearances which is something I always associate with Martin. The latest album includes both banjo and ukulele for those missing the banjo. I suspect the absence had to do with the time constraints of getting the two shows per night in. Martin visibly relaxed as the show continued giving his usual very informative song intros, more detail and wide ranging information than you get from most artists. As he says “you don’t get information like that at a Black Sabbath gig!” The audience listened beautifully and like me seemed glad to be back listening to live music. The soon to be 80 years young Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” was meant to bring the show to a close but an encore brought Robb Johnson’s very sadly, still appropriate for these times, “More Than Enough”. This is a song I first heard many years ago performed by Martin’s late Father-in-Law the irascible and much missed Roy Bailey. Before lockdown Martin had started to play it frequently as a tribute. All too soon it was time to leave safely by rows and make way for the group of volunteers to ‘covid’ clean the premises for the next sitting. Judging by the general vibe and conversation as people left a good time was had by all, musician, audience and promoters alike. Let’s hope the shows continue without interruptions. The 1830 show on the 23rd was seen not only in Saltaire but around the world by live stream. Considering there were several cameras operating it was an almost entirely unobtrusive addition to the audience experience. There was also a very interesting looking extra microphone. The set list was the same , still no banjo, although I gather that “Deliah” from Home Recordings featured as an encore in the 2100 show. To me, what was noticeably different was Martin’s demeanour. The second show he was visibly more relaxed and the words seemed to come far easier both for the songs and the between song banter. The first show he was really concentrating and looking down a lot of the time, the second he was obviously feeling far more at ease and at home, almost as though he had never been away. He was looking out at and engaging with the audience and thoroughly enjoying the experience of being back on stage, doing what he does better than most can dream of. The audience response and appreciation was superb for both shows. Let’s hope that full shows can resume safely as soon as possible.
The set list for both shows for those interested in such things was: Intro – “Hilary”, “In The Pines” (Lead Belly), “Family Reserve” (Lyle Lovett), “Angel From Montgomery” (John Prine), “October Song” (Robin Williamson), “Donal Óg” (Trad), “Ridgeway (Simpson), “The Cherry Tree Carol” (Trad), “Piney Mountains” (Craig Johnson), “Tyne Of Harrow” (Trad), “Blues Run The Game” (Jackson C Frank), “Buckets of Rain” (Bob Dylan), “More Than Enough” (Robb Johnson)