Tuesday 31 January 2023

Del Barber / Lottie Gray / Mike Blue / Hetta Falzon - Manchester Retro - 30th January 2023

Del Barber's UK tour called in at Retro in Manchester on Monday night following his appearance at the UK Americana Week in London. He and his band performed songs from across his career and introduced us to what he describes as "Manitoba honky tonk". The supporting line up of Lottie Gray, Mike Blue and Hetta Falzon provide an excellent and varied introduction to the evening.

We only catch two songs from opening act Hetta Falzon but it’s impressive in many ways. One she’s brought quite a crowd with her which isn’t always the case with local supports. Secondly she manages to squeeze the six people in her band on the tiny Retro stage. But of course the music is the most important and Lost In You and Till The Evening Ends are impressive soul and jazz-tinged songs that people are mouthing the words to as keys and sax take us away from a cold Mancunian Monday night to a smoky dive bar basement across the Atlantic. Her voice is the star though, rich and expressive and living the songs as if she was born singing them.

Mike Blue’s set that follows is equally impressive, you don’t head to tiny indie venues and expect musicians this accomplished. This time guitars are the star although there’s again beautiful, yes this time deliciously understated and subtle, sax in the mix. The first song ascends into a nine minute journey - “I apologise that was a bot long, that’s how we do things” - beautifully crafted. The band sounds like they’ve played together forever but never got bored with each other. Mike’s voice has a powerful clarity that bursts through the middle when needed or an emotional depth in the quieter moments. All I Want All I Need is a particular stand out, starting off slowly before exploding into life and accelerating rapidly without ever going out of control. That is until a snapped string cuts the set short before the final song.

The final support of an excellent line-up is Lottie Gray making her Manchester debut (she, like Hetta, is studying at RNCM, and they share band members). More traditional guitar-led pop than the two previous bands she makes no less of an impact. Her voice is strong and direct but with a streak of a mischievous side to her personality to it. Her band, some of who played with Hetta, give her the platform to really own the stage particularly when she puts down her own guitar and can move more freely. She owns the room even when she strips it back a little musically on the wonderful Daffodil Baby. Best of all is Technicolour Ghost which builds slowly before bursting into life. She tells us it’s her favourite song and it’s not hard to see why. The songs act like earworms, feeling familiar on first listen, always a good sign and the crowd absolutely adore her, singing along to final song Central Line, a universal song about sticking two fingers up to being dumped.

It's ten years since we stumbled across Del Barber at a Manitoba-sponsored morning event at the Great Escape in Brighton. There's no free BBQ tonight, but what remains is Del's glorious ability to craft stories about ordinary everyday people that he comes across in a place far removed from here. He tells stories about going outside at night to pee in minus thirty degree temperatures, a sixty-five year old women who used to serve him petrol, a homeless couple Ronnie and Rose that he used to hang out with as a kid who he and his Dad cowrote a song about, a farmer called John who got a job in Home Depot. Many of these make their way into his songs.

He describes his music at one point as "Manitoba honky-tonk" but it's far more involved and engaging than that deprecating labelling sounds. Beautifully crafted, wonderfully observed songwriting flows with four musicians, clearly attuned to each other and their instruments giving each song a wonderful ebb and flow, be it when Del's accented vocals make you feel like you're living the stories and know the characters whose life he's introducing you to or when the guitars take over as Del asks his bandmates (Ryan on bass / pedal steel, Ivan on drums and Aaron on guitar) "what have you got tonight?" before they let loose. He explains "we don't have much of a plan when we play" but such is their natural talent, you'd feel a plan would be restrictive to the flow of the show.

His storytelling isn't just in the songs as well, he recounts the tales that sit behind them, joking about there being nothing between him and his first love other than the bible or telling us more about the characters in them. He tells us about his four year daughter back home who he sings to every night and who still hasn't requested one of his songs before playing the song that's her favourite - The Big Rock Candy Mountains. They throw in a cover of Roger Miller's Dang Me, finish on John Prine's Spanish Daydream (which Del describes as one of his favourite songs of all time) and introduce new single Still Got You from his forthcoming album Almanac. 

The world is full of incredible musicians who don't get the acclaim they deserve, sometimes because they're so unassuming and modest about their talents. Del Barber's set tonight shows that he's amongst them, this is beautiful music and storytelling, providing insights into real lives and people and played for the joy of playing. As a Mancunian, it was also exceptionally exciting to see three North West based artists we'd never heard of before tonight deliver exceptional sets as well.

Del Barber played Meantime, Lucky Prairie Stars, Big Smoke, Ronnie And Rose, The Right Side Of Wrong, The Big Rock Candy Mountains, Living With A Long Way To Go, No Easy Way Out, Dang Me, Still Got You and Spanish Pipedream.

Del Barber's website can be found here and he is on Facebook and Twitter.

Lottie Gray is on Facebook.

Mike Blue is on Facebook and Twitter.

Hetta Falzon is on Facebook and Twitter.

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1 comment:

  1. A Del Barber fan, I thought this review was well written and informative and made me wish I was there. He's a Canadian treasure.