Ben Watt may be best known as half of the duo Everything but the Girl, but his work as a solo artist has been impressive. Twenty-one years after his debut album North Marine Drive, he released 2014’s Hendra to critical acclaim, followed by last year’s remarkable Fever Dreams. Throughout his career, he has collaborated with Bernard Butler, formerly of the band Suede, Marissa Nadler, and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. For this UK/ Belgium tour, he teams up with double-bassist Rex Horan (Neil Cowley Trio, Laura Marling) for a set of shows. The small and intimate venue of the Boileroom is perfect for that kind of stripped-down approach.
The opening act for the night was Michele Stodart of The Magic Numbers, who took the stage for an acoustic performance. She played a tear-inducing rendition of ‘Once in a While’ and the heart-wrenching but also inspiring ‘Ain’t No Woman’ (despite the crowd being mostly men) from her latest record, ‘Pieces’. Her performance was consistently passionate and evocative. She performed older songs, as well, including the warm ‘Take Your Loving Back’. Despite the predominantly melancholy mood of her repertoire, her smile and sense of humour in between songs balanced things out. “This one’s an angry, bitter one. You know, to mix things up!” she jokes, and performs ‘Foolish Love’, which sounds great on acoustic. She closes with the beautiful ‘Will You Wait’, which had the crowd singing along.
Soon enough, Ben Watt and Rex Horan took the stage. They opened up with ‘Running with the Front Runners’ off Fever Dreams. It was moments like these that made ‘stripped-down performance’ sound like an inappropriate characterization, as the echoing guitar filled up the room. Watt alternated between acoustic and electric guitars, as well as electric piano, which offered a satisfying sense of variety.
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Though the tour is in support of Watt’s latest record, Fever Dreams, the duo did not hesitate to perform songs from Watt’s earlier discography, including ‘Some Things Don’t Matter’. They performed many songs from 2014’s Hendra; the title track, in particular, was truly heart-wrenching, and so was ‘Nathaniel’. They also performed two tracks from Everything but the Girl’s ‘Amplified Heart’. He explains that going back to those songs made him realize how much of him is in that record, though the songs are mostly sung by Tracey Thorn, and performs ‘Rollercoaster’. It becomes a wholly different song with just him and the piano, his voice at its most vulnerable, its immediacy and nostalgia amplified to heartbreaking effect.
Watt and Horan did a great job of translating the songs from Watt’s latest album to acoustic as well. ‘Gradually’, which originally features a full-band arrangement, saw Watt at the electric piano once again, making the track even more moving. Though ‘Winter’s Tale’ lends itself more easily to that kind of approach, it isn’t any less effective. Other songs are less emotional but resonate just as much, like ‘Young Man’s Game’ or ‘Faces of My Friends’, with its satisfying chorus intensified by Watt’s soaring vocals. ‘New Year of Grace’ wouldn’t be the same without Marissa Nadler, and so despite her absence, her backing vocals are heard, dreamy and ethereal.
Apart from being a talented musician, Watt also knows how to tell a story (as a writer, he has published two books, Romany and Tom and Patient, based on his own experiences). And so in between songs he tells stories behind what inspired these songs; about his parents’ home before playing ‘Bricks and Wood’, his illness before ‘Rollercoaster’, his sister who died before ‘Hendra’, about Christmas before Everything but the Girl’s ‘25th December’. As he talks, Watt looks down, his head bowed, partly because he’s tuning his guitar and perhaps partly because these stories are personal and heartbreaking. The flow of his speech is very natural. He takes pauses, as if thinking about the right words at the moment, and looks up again. Watt doesn’t presuppose everyone in the room knows his personal history, which allows everyone to appreciate the show as a complete experience.
Rex Horan is a unique musician in his own right. He remained taciturn for most of the night but was truly expressive while playing each song, wholly immersing himself into the performance, occasionally offering backing vocals as well. “He’s very friendly, Rex, behind this beard,” Watt jokes, and later explains that though he has played with different musicians, Horan brings a totally different mood into the songs. And so he did.
Overall, the musicians’ experience and talent shined throughout. The stripped-down approach allowed for an intimate experience, transforming the songs and making them more direct and emotionally resonant.