Two of our best and most distinctive singer songwriters Kris Drever and Boo Hewerdine have walked and worked in the same circles for some years. Despite this and the natural ability and track record that both share as collaborators, Last Man Standing is the first set of songs they have recorded together. It’s a cracker too, with five songs, diplomatically split down the middle, documenting the human condition from all sides with typical wit and wisdom and setting up their duo tour, which starts today, as a must see. It’s off to Camden for me tonight then.
Kris and Boo first crossed paths a little under a decade ago when the former approached the latter about recording Boo’s song Harvest Gypsies for his debut album Black Water. The song was a natural fit amongst other socially conscious writing from the likes of Sandy Wright and Andy McKay. Despite its up-tempo feel, the song is based on Steinbeck’s journalistic work, documenting the fortunes of America’s dustbowl poor that would ultimately inspire his novel The Grapes Of Wrath. Arguably Boo’s more natural territory is affairs of the heart, making this an oddity in his canon, but then it simply shows that he’s a versatile and extremely accomplished writer and it’s easy to see the appeal for Kris.
It also probably helps that the two of them share a label home in Reveal Records and subsequently they also toured together with Eddi Reader, another of the label’s stars, but both have worked with and for others along their respective musical timelines. Kris is of course known for some other fabulous collaborations, notably with Éamonn Coyne and Roddy Woomble, and it seems something that he is naturally predisposed to doing so, relishing the opportunities to explore different facets of his musicality. Boo meanwhile, also has a history of writing with and for others, as well as being an in demand producer. He’s also had a couple of very good duo partnerships with Darden Smith and more recently, the superb State Of The Union, with Brooks Williams. Given all of that it’s perhaps obvious that they would eventually join forces, even if it’s taken until now to see their names together on a CD front cover.
The first fruits of their labours are fashionable EP length, amounting to five new songs, but there is a tour just starting, so expect more from the live set. On the strength of this it will be an absolute dream. Two songs each, which divide up fairly obviously and very nicely, with a co-write keeping things all square. It’s all simply recorded and produced by Jon Kelly, a man with an enviable CV, taking just a couple of days in a London studio to see through. Two men, two voices, two guitars, what more do you really need? The answer in this case being, nothing really.
By suggesting that Boo’s natural songwriting dominion is the vagaries of the human heart, is not to downplay his craft for a second. He has a real gift for alighting on a detail, a phrase, capturing a moment or a feeling, something fleeting, yet something that cuts deep. Sometimes Boo seems bestowed with a romanticism, at once rapacious but almost naïve or even doomed, at other time’s he gets to the nub in brief pen strokes of careful economy.
Songs like Bluebirds are perhaps in between. The heartbreak of, “I miss you so much that it’s hard to believe, It’s a catch in my breath every time that I breathe,” is immediate and palpable. Yet the place where the object of such affections still reciprocates that love is in the midst of a dream world and “Down where the bluebirds fly.” With some lovely vocals accompaniment and a guitar part that plots a more adventurous, with a jazz moment or two, harmonic course from Kris, it’s a sweet soupcon of sorrow.
While Boo’s other song, from which this Last Man Standing EP derives its title also deals with love, it’s more in the nurturing sense, however, not specific and blurring the lines around the giver. The standpoint of the taker also circles the meaning of those three words, linking boyhood to bar room and the fortunate son to the love rival. In the end, what is the point of this defiance? If you’re the last man left, then who is there to see you?
Kris’ songs, although equally strong in narrative, often seem to have arrived via a side door. In some ways, however, When All The Shouting Is Over, also appears to be about nurture, or at least the point when you have to let go and set someone on their own course into the wider world. The instructions are to build high dig deep but, “Don’t deny your hungry brother.” There is also the wish to, “Remember our faces every day that you roam,” because ultimately there is always the chance that, “When the race is run, And the shouting is all over, Come on Home.” Its briskly strummed and hummed intro blossoms into gentle arpeggios and the two voices create a really full sound. There is also perhaps a hint of autobiography in the line, “Fill empty halls,” although the sentiment fits all comers.
Five Past Two In The Afternoon, “And nothing’s going to get done soon,” is a brilliant testimony to the torpor that I’m sure many will recognise, or you could say, ‘Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after?’ It’s doubtless one of the perils of the musicians life, is that drift when there are no gigs, no appointments and no visitors. Although its weary, in a ‘can’t even be bothered to get dressed kind’ of way, there’s also a nice self-deprecating wit in the litany of ballads, to be learnt, MU fees to be paid, emails to be written and so forth. The greater the need, the less the will and sometimes you just need to take your foot off the pedal, so let Kris bear the guilt for you.
If ennui has set in on that last song then the closer tips over into the fin de siècle, mad dogs and Englishmen territory of faded grandeur. As Lost Empires point out, “History is a lesson that stays the same, That no one ever seems to learn.” Empires and rulers come and go and the passage of time tends to correct the course of things, while the world keeps on turning. The maps on the wall, also washed of colour and dog eared, were once meant to embolden and inspire superior thoughts and deeds, but delivered with a lazy jazziness, with a little lingering scent of Coward’s louche deadpan, or Neil Innes’ prancing Equestrian Statue, the decadent downfall of our British Empire is set here in the context of Nero and Ozymandias. They should be teaching us this sort of stuff in schools!
Last Man Standing is just five songs then, but so much more. With the tour just underway and the first date tonight, there will be a chance to see just how far that Kris & Boo can push this partnership. With two songwriters as good as this pairing, we might get fireworks, we might get tears, but if we listen, who knows we might learn something.
Review by: Simon Holland
Last Man Standing Released: July 13th 2015
Order via Reveal Records Store
See Kris & Boo on tour as a duo for the first time throughout April.
16/4 London, Cecil Sharpe House
17/4 Whitstable, Royal Native Oyster Stories
18/4 Boxford,The Fleece Hotel
19/4 Derby,Guildhall Theatre
20/4 Birmingham, Hare & Hounds
21/4 Cambridge, The Junction
22/4 Newcastle, Tyneside Irish Centre
23/4 Bury, The Met
24/4 Glasgow, The CCA
25/4 Edinburgh, The Pleasance
26/4 Stirling, Tolbooth
Boo Hewerdine will also be touring in June and September.
Kris Drever is on tour with Lau in May.
Photo Credit: Richard Ecclestone