Friday, November 27, 2015

Rock and roll returns to Paris: Richard Hawley at the Alhambra

© Simon Poulter 2015
My God, this is what Paris needed. Screw that, this is what I needed.​ Not to get too overwrought, but the events of November 13 - and in particular, the slaughter at Le Bataclan - meant that any return to the normality Paris has sought in the last two weeks had to include getting back into the city's concert halls.

Although U2, Prince and the Foo Fighters, amongst others, cancelled scheduled gigs following the attacks, the defiance this city has shown from the beginning of the aftermath brought an unspoken poignancy to the Alhambra on Wednesday night.

And if Paris was still nervous, the 600 inside the former French railway workers' fun house, a 15-minute walk from Le Bataclan, didn't show it.

Indeed, the Alhambra may have been within reach of the now-fêted new bohemian districts and their youthful on-mode residents, but the Paris which came out to experience Hawley and his subtle brand of rock and roll, not to mention his gentle, dry South Yorkshire humour, represented a cross section of a city still in pain. This was a city looking for enjoyment, from children to elegantly-clad seniors. And it wasn't to be disappointed, either.

From the moment Hawley strode on stage to the tune of Jerry Reed's Guitar Man and bedecked in double-denim (probably the only man in the Western world in his late 40s able to get away with such a look), the Alhambra was held in the comforting embrace of his trademark glitterball ballads, swoonsome slow dances, chugging rockers and psychedelic tripouts.

It is seemingly impossible for anyone to write about Hawley without mentioning, in no specific order, quiffs, crooning, Sheffield and the 1950s. And while there is an obvious tread of retro through some of what he does, contemporary social commentary runs deep through his music, as well as the questions about life that all 48-year-olds - myself being one of them - ask.

From the outset, the storming Which Way set the tone. One of the more raucous tracks on this year's Hollow Meadows, which marked a return to the more late night fare of Hawley's earlier solo albums, the descending chords of Hawley and rhythm player Shez Sheridan's guitars warmed up the November-chilled crowd.

There was more of this grittier material to come with Standing At The Sky's Edge, drenched in Ennio Morricone-like forboding of the kind Johnny Cash would have made a brilliant cover out of on his latterday American Recordings releases. Here, though, Hawley and band built it up, providing mesmerising theatre to a song about Sheffield's urban blight, with a tribal drum segment added by Dean Beresford and bass player Colin Elliott on a side snare to enhances the dramatic tension.

Standing At The Sky's Edge was a stunning album, and the tracks taken from it in this set shone for their warmth and their anger. Leave Your Body Behind You exemplified the album's psych rock direction, and Don't Stare At The Sun provided a dreamier outlook on the world. On Down In The Woods, with its barely concealed contempt for the ruling political elite in Britain, the fire was channelled through Hawley and Sheridan's myriad effects pedals, not to mention the song's industrial rhythm, one which sounds like a slower version of Motorhead's Ace Of Spades. Playing an absolutely vibrant, fireglow-hued Rickenbacker on Time Will Bring You Winter, Hawley took things into Beatle territory - Colin Elliott even played a Hofner violin bass - an undercurrent of Tomorrow Never Knows giving the song a hypnotic feel.

The dark romance of Hawley's slower, old-style songs, which showcased both the rich timbre of his baritone as well as his gift as a uniquely melodic guitarist, provided the soothing blanket that this disturbed and, now, cold city desired. The luscious ballad I Still Want You draped a caring arm around the audience, while Open Up Your Door - which met with an almighty cheer - brought out the glitterball spirit of old fashioned entertainment. Ballads like these can, it must be said, sound schmaltzy on record, but in the expanse of a room like the Alhambra's, a fullsome energy came to the fore. On Sometimes I Feel, there was a Western tone, which bridged into a jangly segment driven by Sheridan's exquisite electric 12-string sound.

Parisian audiences can be annoyingly yappy, I've noticed, but when Hawley almost encouraged crowd chatter in his introduction to Tuesday PM - "the most miserable fucking song I've ever written" - the audience went respectfully quiet. "Let's play some rock and roll," Hawley then declared, defiantly, after some awkward audience banter, as the band launched into Heart Of Oak, which thundered on at a snappy clip.

As they headed into the encore, ​There's A Storm Comin' bound the crowd even closer. Given what happened just across the 10th arrondissement two weeks ago, the song's refrain "there's a storm comin', you'd better run,,," painted emotion onto the faces of couples who, as the song built to a grinding, thudding crescendo, held themselves even tighter.

After the briefest of exits, the Hawley and his band returned clutching glasses of red wine which they held aloft in tribute to Paris, and the Paris that had come out tonight to see them. It was a nice touch, a genuine and lovingly reciprocated gesture that set up Coles Corner, the near-ten year-old song here transformed into a Parisian lullaby, but with the weighted poignancy of lyrics such as "Cherish the light for us, don't let the shadows hold back the dawn", and the even more poignant, "I'm going downtown where there's music, I'm going downtown where there's people."

Well, here they were. And, with the shimmering finale of The Ocean, Hawley barely singing above a throaty drawl, an evening that Paris needed, an evening that Paris deserved, came to an end.

Paris didn't need the tragedy of the November 13th attrocities to enjoy Richard Hawley. Having seen him in 2012 at Le Cigale, I knew what a complete and hugely satisfying experience it would be. On Wednesday at the Alhambra, that satisfaction came back stronger than ever. Hail, hail, rock and roll.

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