Paul Armfield gives the impression of being a big bloke. It’s not that he’s especially tall, but just broad shouldered, well built – it’s a look enhanced by a full beard, although that looks neatly trimmed on this occasion. He doesn’t tower over you or dominate, but he has a warm and confident handshake and a broad smile. I’ve only just met the guy, but over the course of a couple of phone conversations and text messages he’s already given the impression of being congenial and the kind of person who manages to appear genuinely grateful that you’ve taken an interest – a rare skill.
It comes across in his performance too. Admittedly there’s an element of a home crowd and he remarks on the familiar faces in front of him. Still somehow he seems to fill the stage, although he hasn’t taken it alone, yet his voice, although it can be ‘big’ on demand, also has an uncanny knack of finding the tender spot, which he also seems capable of hitting at will.
[pullquote]That person is Dave Godby a man of many talents, which tonight run to playing lap and pedal steel, banjo, guitar, oud, hammer dulcimer and…the lira[/pullquote]I’ve been promised a full band show and indeed, that it is. Paul has already explained, “There’ll be one guy who plays everything. You’ll see what I mean.” That person is Dave Godby a man of many talents, which tonight run to playing lap and pedal steel, banjo, guitar, oud, hammer dulcimer and (the one that stumps me), the lira, which is like a mini oud, but held upright and bowed. The man who has been Paul’s regular foil on guitar and mandolin down the years, J.C. Grimshaw, is also present, with Rafe Spencer on double bass and Gaspar Sena on drums. Oddly, the latter is someone I immediately recognise from jazz sessions at my local pub on Sunday evening as one of the itinerant, rotating cast of players. It’s questionable who’s more surprised at the smallness of the world.
Paul has been a bookshop manager for 20 years or so and so you would naturally expect him to be well read. There are certainly hints of that in the loquacious and clever lyrics, but the ideas and stories flow so freely and naturally, they fit as part of the whole and songs seem to get just what they need from both the narratives and the exemplary playing. This is seriously impressive stuff, which only begs the question, why is this my first encounter? But, hey! You’ve got to start somewhere.
That ‘where’ was with the forthcoming album Up There. It was played to me by someone who confessed not to care for it much, but his loss and my gain. The opener from that CD, also starts the set tonight and cleverly serves as a set of instructions to the audience. Shhh suggests turning off the iPhone, dismissing other distractions and listening instead. It’s a song of such elegance and grace that it’s impossible not to accede to the request, but as mentioned above also has a tenderness and almost whispered delivery that is a genuine surprise and all the more beguiling for it.
[pullquote]’Migration’ Paul informs us is born from working in bookshops. Over the years of selling maps and travel books, the destinations that people seem most interested in have a way of appearing in the folds or on the edges of the pages.[/pullquote]We are treated to a reasonable sampling of the new album material. Migration, Paul informs us is born from working in bookshops. Over the years of selling maps and travel books, the destinations that people seem most interested in have a way of appearing in the folds or on the edges of the pages. This Photograph Is My Proof is about a shared, precious moment captured and preserved by a camera. First is a paean to childish wide eyes and of life yet to be lived, from one who is getting inevitably to the other end of spectrum. The Speed Of Clouds offers a genuinely psychedelic moment and comes over more forcefully than the recording, but that’s no bad thing either way. You Will Be Loved Again is there to offer hope to all of the broken hearted. The Morning After The Storm is all about calm and reconciliation.
The playing is simply superb throughout. J.C. swapping between guitar and mandolin seems to know exactly what to do and you can sense that he and Paul share an understanding that borders on the telepathic. Despite his dizzying variety of instruments, Dave Godby too seems to have an empathetic ear. Paul tells an amusing tale of going to a museum of musical instruments somewhere in Germany. Dave apparently attracted the attention of various of the museum staff, such was his knowledge and unbridled enthusiasm for the various things on display.
Dotted through the set are a few songs chosen to give some of those more familiar with his work a treat or two. The ones that immediately leap out are Devil On Your Back, kind of like The Road to Hell, only much, much better, Trigonometry, Sloe Gin and appropriately enough if you live on the Isle Of Wight, Missing The Last Boat Home. A couple of songs, Poet’s Song and Sweet And Low, are even plucked from Paul’s Tennyson album, a tribute to the poet who is strongly linked with his island home. There’s even room for a cheeky Dylan cover as Paul’s recent tour shadowed his Bobness around, but Tom Thumb’s Blues is an intriguing and very well executed choice, giving J.C. a chance for a little extra curricular harmonica wailing.
[pullquote]there’s a nice moment where the band step forward form behind their microphone and sing the tile track from Up Here unamplified[/pullquote]With encores aplenty, although here my notes get a little sketchy as I’m too busy joining in with the general acclaim, there’s a nice moment where the band step forward form behind their microphone and sing the tile track from Up Here unamplified, acoustic instruments and rhythm pole and glorious harmonies. It may have been my imagination, but it even seemed to have hushed the hubbub upstairs that has an unfortunate way of making itself known during quieter moments.
I manage a few words with a lot of people at the end, most of whom have much further to go to get home than me. Still I make drop my usual ‘last boat across the River Styx to get back to my manor in south London’ line and scuttle for the tube. Luckily for me Charon, the ferryman, is accepting Oyster Cards and I have a song in my heart that even the filth hounds of Hades won’t rob me of. What a night, now forever lodged in the memory banks.
Review by: Simon Holland
Up Here is due for release through PIAS distribution in early January 2014