Live : Lee Southall - Guitar, Vocal18.08.17 : 3rd Space, Llandudno
It must be hard having spent half a lifetime playing in a band to suddenly perform on a stage alone. Lee Southall was a guitarist in The Coral from their first rehearsal in 1996 until he took an indefinite, amicable leave of absence when the group reconvened after a three year pause in 2015. Iron in the Fire, a debut album released earlier this year marked out his new chosen path; that of a contemporary singer songwriter taking influence from both British folk greats and West Coast Americana. The recorded songs are well arranged, full compositions - for this intimate venue they were presented solo.
Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler"; as a guitarist Southall's fingerstyle playing is distinctive and detailed, but there is nothing spare in it - no wasted notes, nothing unnecessary. This was no better demonstrated than at the start of this set with the hypnotic instrumental Iron in the Fire - metronomic and subtly baroque, it gained startled first applause - which he acknowledged with a good humoured aside, "Thanks very much - I should get off now I think."
That he can effortlessly hold an audience was further evidenced by a couple of early highlights off his debut album - a yearning Misty Mae and the lightness and hope of Yesterday Morning - which were followed by a sprightly, strummed song, Lonesome Lovers, before an accurate and well received Bert Jansch cover, One for Joe (from mid-70s release LA Turnaround).
Spread Your Wings, the brooding incoming storm of Under the Weather and a muted reading of Walking in the Winter (a song he co-wrote whilst in The Coral) set the scene for the close, and the best had been saved for last; there was more than a ghost of the evocative story telling and full power of Richard Thompson in the final song, In Accordance - as it built Southall created a dark then quickening mood, with a dramatic and orchestral sense of depth.
As the set finished the applause rightly rang around the room for long moments.
Iron in the Fire is clearly a slow burning and exceptional debut - it might take a few listens to fully engage with it, but in contrast this performance had an instant impact. There is no doubt either that live this is modern folk, fully rooted in the work of past guitar icons; it belongs in acoustic clubs and on folk festival stages, where its value would be immediately evident - accomplished, emotionally fluent music made with just guitar and voice.
I do not know how many times Lee Southall has stepped out in front of an audience on his own, but he is already compelling to listen to when he does.