Servant Jazz Quarters is a bohemian one-room bar and basement venue tucked down a side street in North London with a laid back atmosphere, friendly staff and an entertaining list of cocktails. Downstairs, candles line the bare brick walls, incense sticks idle in jam jars and half-a-dozen tables face a tiny triangular stage. The capacity can be no more than 60 so intimacy is a given. If it wasn’t for the impressive PA rack tucked into the back corner and the proliferation of smartphones, you could be in Bleecker Street, 1964, waiting for The Lovin’ Spoonful to take the stage at the Village Gate. It’s the sort of gig you imagine Vikesh Kapoor has played a thousand times, but tonight is his first UK headline appearance in the wake of a debut album release, so regardless of size, there’s a little more at stake than might be normally assumed, for him and his European label Loose.
First up, however, and all the way from Glasgow for the privilege, is Daniel Meade. Resplendent in a purple lined pearl snap shirt that’s come even further (Nashville), he wields his acoustic with the comfortable air of someone who knows his way around a fretboard in the dark. His trad-Country influences extend to classic lyrics like ‘I was a man, but you made a boy of me’ and ‘If it’s not your fault, I guess it’s mine’.
His songs are mostly mid-tempo, strummed, with clever melodies and wry, tongue-in-cheek subject matter that, true to its roots, belies the depth of feeling apparent when you peer beneath the surface. Banter is kept to a minimum, but it’s as dry and humorous as you would expect from a Scot who’s travelled 400 miles by train to sing. Meade’s recent trip to the home of Country included sessions with Old Crow Medicine Show for a new album, some of which he plays to a good response. He’s supported Kapoor’s fast-rising label mate Sturgill Simpson and is definitely one to watch.
His album, As Good As Bad Can Be (see what he did there?), is available now.
Vikesh Kapoor spends a good ten minutes on stage methodically preparing himself and his props before starting. If that’s a measure of a need to surround himself with familiar things to cope with nerves or just a routine pre-gig, have-i-got-everything step, it’s very quickly obvious that neither are necessary. Tall and slight with a penetrating stare, Kapoor has real presence, demanding attention without needing to ask. I am reliably informed by more than one lady in the audience that he is eminently watchable – thankfully, for more than just his looks. Acutely aware of the intimacy of the venue, he bends into the microphone and cradles his guitar, singing over the harmonica strapped around his neck, every move to and from the stand unconsciously choreographed to fit the ebb and flow of the music.
And what music.
Opener I Never Knew What I Saw In You flows effortlessly from the stage, guitar and voice in perfect alliance. It’s a voice that mixes sandpaper and molasses, gravel and grace; it is spellbinding and elicits deserved applause. The story of the song’s gestation is told in a much quieter, more fragile spoken voice, one that grows in confidence throughout the performance but retains its humility. It’s engaging but provides no glimpse of the man inside the earnest, honest shell – the music is all that’s required for that. Ode To My Hometown and Bottom Of The Ladder, both from The Ballad Of Willy Robbins are equally good, the former a lament for the inevitable changes that come to all home towns and our earliest memories of them (Kapoor’s in sleepy Pennsylvania), the latter a cry for the working man that opens the album and sets the scene for a thematic ride through one man’s life of ever-increasing hardship.
There are interesting cultural references in every lyric and obvious nods to the great protest singers of the 20th century, but it would be unfair to label Kapoor in that way or to overtly burden him with connection to such iconic names except to say that Willy Robbins is at least blessed with a shower and TV, items of luxury above and beyond the meagre possessions intimated in Guthrie and Baez’s activist albums. If that helps Kapoor contemporise his work without diluting its universal beliefs and morals, so much the better; Willy Robbins is as much an invisible cog in the machine of progress as the characters portrayed in Guthrie or Seeger’s works, but he is very much a product of the 21st century. As the gig goes on, Robbins comes to life for the audience, the album’s theme explicit but never forced and despite being one man with a guitar, Kapoor continues to weave his magic over a very attentive audience.
Carry Me Home is driving, persistent. Blue Eyed Baby is mellow and beautiful. A surprise cover of Weill and Brecht’s Mack The Knife is nicely interpreted before the title track of the album closes the show. Without appearing to, Kapoor has worked the audience such that when he stops it’s as if we’ve all been released and can exhale again; the spell is broken. He introduces his one encore Searching For The Sun as ‘…a hopeful song..’ and retires to a table to sign merchandise, chatting happily to everyone who approaches him. As first headline gigs go, he, and we, could not have asked for more.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
The Ballad of Willy Robbins is released via Loose Music – Out Now
Order via: Amazon