Live : Tom Blackwell01 December 2018, Blue Sky Cafe [Bangor]
Climbing the stairs up to the intimate setting of Bangor's Blue Sky Café it was hard not to have high expectations of the performance due. Tom Blackwell's last album, Memphis Volume 1, released in July, is the crafted definition of an understated classic.
The Liverpool based singer-songwriter draws on country, blues, gospel & American folk music to create what Bob Harris has rightly described as 'Wonderful, heartfelt music'. Visiting Bangor for an annual December appearance, Blackwell took the stage in front of a full house and delivered a suitably spellbinding masterclass.
The essence of everything Tom Blackwell does is in his singing voice - as distinctive, plaintive and soulful an instrument as you could hope to hear. On record and stage he punctuates with doleful harmonica and emphasises with expressive guitar playing, but it is the vocal that is the heart-rending centre of his magic.
For Bangor he played two great, near-hour long sets.
From the first note the music seemed to flow from the stage as soft and as encompassing as an early morning mist drifting in from the sea, the tempo only occasionally shifting for upbeat, defiant gems such as the swaggering Broke, Bruised and Busted (from 2015's Tyrone the Gun).
The cumulative mood of both sets was melancholy and disconsolate. Few of the songs were directly introduced, but when he spoke Blackwell revealed a fine, sparely used wit - his thin frame and height further contributing to a stage presence that could be thematically filed somewhere between an alt. country Jarvis Cocker and comedian Tom Wrigglesworth.
Although subtle, Tom Blackwell's songwriting is exceptional - demonstrated most definitively by the pair of songs that opened the second set, the elegiac Blood Runs Cold on the Ground and the brisker There is Sorrow in the Kingdom. Both can be found in the same order at the start of Memphis Volume 1, and on stage were re-created as emotively as when recorded.
It was a laid back yet intense evening; the Blue Sky's ambience was heightened by the absolute stillness of the crowd (often as rapt as young children might be sat around a master storyteller) as each song was sung and the constant background percussion of light rain on the skylights in the venue's vaulted roof. As the night drew to a close with a lamenting Tyrone the Gun, there was no sense of mere ritual as the audience stamped and applauded to demand an encore.
Blackwell duly returned to the stage for a final ten minutes as perfectly formed as what had already gone before - ending with the downbeat, mournful gospel of Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Often watching British Americana performers it is easy to find yourself flicking back through your memory checking for sources of influence and authenticity - but Tom Blackwell's music just is what it is, and that is something truly remarkable.
As winter finally encroaches this was simply and effortlessly one of the finest gigs of the year - and a profound honour to watch.
Tom Blackwell, Blue Sky