Scott Matthews has come a long way since ‘Elusive’ won him that Ivor Novello award. Despite his humble 2006 beginnings, the cashmere-voiced Wolverhampton wailer is still going strong, now touring in support of his fifth studio album ‘Home Part 2’, the follow-up to 2014’s ‘Home Part 1’ (surprisingly). For the final night of the tour, Matthews took to the boards of the Islington Assembly Hall and brought his screwball indie-folk theatrics along with him.
Support act Kathryn Williams set the tone perfectly. Taking to the stage with a jester’s twinkle in her eye, Williams’ crystal-clear lullabies broke the audience in. Her unrehearsed cover of Neil Young’s ‘I Believe In You’ in particular sent ripples through the crowd. The devotees were ready, and they wouldn’t have long to wait.
The main set began with Matthews alone. Under a scandal-red spotlight in a ruffled suit jacket, Matthews took to the stage like a thespian Casanova to give a heart-stealing rendition of ‘Virginia’. The classic Scott Matthews. But after that, the crowd were treated to the louder, grander artist he’s become. Matthews welcomed on his backing band, and swung full-throttle into ‘Drifter’ and ‘Sunlight’. Amplified Americana sunset music, steeped in chorusing mandolins and moaning harmonicas.
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It’s always exciting to see an artist whose live sound differs from their studio recordings, and Matthews is as guilty as a red-handed pickpocket. Where much of his recorded material is based around the sparse interplay of his passion-slick guitar and his ethereal harmonised vocals, his on-stage incarnation trades that for a vibrant live-band dynamic, heavier percussion, and surging guitars, and morphs his vocals from whisper-tender gasps to valley-spanning cries. It’s less Bon Iver, more Robert Plant.
Seguing swiftly from old track to new, Matthews was a surprisingly enigmatic frontman. Not one for egotistic rock-star posturing, Matthews spent most of the performance rooted to the microphone or easing side-to-side like a well-dressed musical sloth. Between songs Matthews mostly drank tea or quoted Lord of the Rings. It was almost as if he’d stumbled across the stage looking for a quiet place to practice, found an audience and decided ‘well, why not?’. This breezy nonchalance made his more energetic songs all the more engaging. Like Matthews was barely paying attention, and just let the music use him like a conduit.
The arrival of special-guest accordionist Richard Adey saw perhaps the liveliest section of the show. Adey joined first for old favourite ‘City Headache’, a plodding stroll through some Parisian underdark with an astronomic Gary Moore guitar solo. Then Adey remained for ‘Bad Apple’, a euphoric street-corner-soul track that saw jazzy solos from Adey and bassist Chas McKenzie. To Matthews’ credit, he had no qualms about giving his bandmates their moments in the spotlight. It gave him a chance to sit down and sip his tea.
After a few more slow-downs, such as new track ‘Where I Long To Be’, Matthews went in for his cacophonous finale. Channelling his inner arena rocker, ‘Passing Stranger’ and ‘Dream Song’ have never been bluesier thanks to Matthews’ levee-breaking harmonica. After a brief exit, Matthews returned to the bizarre and sinister tune of ‘Waltz at Nightfall’ (again joined by Adey). Finally, Matthews ended as he’d begun; alone under a red lamp, to finally perform the longed-for track that started it all: ‘Elusive’. Here at the end of his tour, it was more poignant than ever.
The best word to describe Matthews’ performance would be ‘warm’. From the sunset lightning and Steinbeck stage-dust to the Americanised instrumentation and Matthews’ own laid-back banter. This was an easy performance to watch, and it could have gone on twice as long and few would have noticed. Matthews was tight, tenacious, he gave you something you couldn’t get from his studio records and he left you wanting more. In short, he did everything a good live performer should do, and he did it all with a wry smile and a cup of Yorkshire Gold.