I thought about connection on the way to this gig.
Here’s why. Yes, I was on my way to see Scott Matthews perform in support of his excellent The Great Untold album, and yes, the man does specialise in thoughtful textured meditations on union and division. Loneliness and connection is where he lives.
But it would be a hot button topic even if this wasn’t the case. We are more connected now than we ever have been. Communication is instant. Personally and professionally, it has never been easier to stay in touch. Our devices constantly ping with incoming messages. Yet all of the evidence shows that we are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness. Even though we are surrounded by things that are supposed to facilitate communication and connection every generation is reporting that they feel more distant from their fellow human beings than ever before. That the UK has appointed a Minister for Loneliness indicates the scale of the problem.
Walking through the streets of Newcastle to the gig it seems hard to square it, though. After all, the sun is shining, it’s a balmy summer’s evening, and the pubs and bars in the city centre have a healthy smattering of people catching up, having a drink, and enjoying themselves.
The thing is that a letter tied together by a ribbon, the ink faded and fading, is a living link that can transport you back to the back to the past and the connections you had then faster than snapping your fingers. When was the last email you received that made your heart sing? What was the last text message that moved you so much that you printed it off and put it in a memory box so you can take it out in forty years to read it again? Faster connection does not mean better connection, or deeper connection, or a more lasting connection. Instant communication is a transient thing, the message you’ve just received dissipating into the ether and vanishing from your memory as soon as the next one arrives. Connection is something much more powerful.
I mean, when was the last time you went to a gig rather than streamed it on your ‘phone, for example? Yes, it’s great that anything we want can arrive on our screen anytime we want. Yes, we can tweet about our favourite artists. If we’re all watching the same gig on our smartphones, though, while we may all be watching the same gig we’re not all sharing the same experience of collective connection. It is music’s ability to connect us that is one of its most powerful attributes.
Which, as I arrive at the venue, brings us neatly back to Scott Matthews. Touring in support of The Great Untold, he makes an engaging performer – although it’s initially difficult for me to put my finger on why. Jerry Lee Lewis ripping it up on top of the Steinway Grand this is not. But there is a wry thoughtfulness to Matthews’ stage presence and a nicely dry sense of humour that draws you in. It helps that The Cluny’s intimacy is ideally suited for a performer whose stock-in-trade since his 2006 debut single Elusive won an Ivor Novello Award has been an understated elegance.
Opening with The Great Untold sets the tone for the evening that follows. This is music to be experienced up close. It simply has to be as so much of Mathew’s music is based on its use of space and sparsity. It depends on a connection being made between the performer and the audience. Of course, for that to happen, you actually have to be there and the artist to be capable of doing it live under the lights without the benefit of Autotune, backing tracks, and a razzle-dazzle light show.
Luckily, I was and Matthews is one such performer. At this stage in his career, there is an ease in the way that Matthews goes about his work that inspires you to sit back and enjoy it. Mona’s fingerpicked patterns are a reminder that a good player makes it look easy. The dynamic union between the pitching swooping voice and the ebb and flow of the guitar throughout the night indicate the ease born of long communion with and dedication to the craft. An elegiac So Long, My Moonlight builds beautifully from its sombre opening to its shifting, sliding payoff, while Cinnamon continues to haunt simply because each time I hear it I feel like I’ve heard it before somewhere else, and each time I fail to place its chord sequences somewhere else I have to give in and simply admit that it’s a great piece of writing. Passing Stranger reminds me that Mathew’s has built a good back catalogue to draw on, even as it gives way to the set closer of Elusive – which remains a direct and compelling song.
Live, I can hear why the John Martyn comparisons have been made. There’s something in the slurred delivery, in the swoops and elisions of the voice that call that icon to mind. I’d struggle to agree with the idea that he’s Martyn’s natural heir though, as some have suggested. I’m sure it’s a link that Matthews himself would disavow, not least because although every good musician will acknowledge their influences they also want to be their own man.
The distinctions appear obvious to me. Martyn was always capable of cutting loose. Even in his later years when the lithe handsome boy with the tousled curls had given way to shorn-headed bulk and a missing leg, he was still capable of conjuring a palpable sense of danger – as if at any moment, he might through a verbal or musical hand-grenade into the audience just to see what would happen. Matthews is too studied to do that. Nor would Matthews engage in Martyn’s career-long habit of undercutting the profoundly deep emotions of his best work by ribald mugging. That was part of the angel/devil complex that made Martyn so compelling. How could a man who could write and sing of love so powerfully also be the belligerent arsehole who nuts you in the bar? Was it because of one he had the other? It was a dialectic reflected in Martyn’s music. Remembered and lauded for its ambient dreaminess, it could also be funkily percussive and up-tempo. Matthews rarely breaks into a gallop.
Where the comparison holds good, however, is in the cumulative sense of Mathew’s writing and performance. This is music as an immersive unhurried experience. As such, it references Elliot Smith, the acoustic minimalism of The Blue Nile’s Peace At Last album, and the softer elements of Radiohead as much as it does Martyn. In the environs of The Cluny, it’s rather good.
Where does that leave us? Matthews sings of loneliness and disconnection in an age where both are rife. He does so in a way that connects, and as such he dissipates their power by making them part of our shared condition of humanity. That’s the whole point of music. That’s the whole point of listening to it together. That’s the whole point of going out to gigs – to get the experience and emotion release you don’t get from a screen. Saying ‘go out, go to gigs’ will not cure all modern ills. It would be too trite and reductive to suggest that. Nevertheless, just as all of the evidence shows that we are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness and disconnection, all of the countering evidence shows that getting out of the house more, being around people more, and getting involved in the world outside the screens that dominate our daily lives have profound and far-reaching impacts on individuals, communities, and societies. They also have huge knock-on effects for everything from local businesses to the culture that surrounds us. So, yes. Go to a gig. If you can, go and see Scott Matthews.