WITH Shetland possessing its own distinct musical tradition, Richard Hawley confessed towards the end of his Mareel gig that he’d feared it’d be “a bit like selling fridges to eskimos”. On this evidence, if Hawley had been the salesman there’d be a bunch of igloos with electrical cooling appliances in them by now.
Tuesday night’s rapturously received show – part of the tenth anniversary of Shetland Arts’ thriving film festival Screenplay – can safely be added to a bulging catalogue of memorable nights in the North Ness auditorium.
Earlier in the evening there had been a screening of visiting director Kim Longinotto’s documentary film ‘Love Is All’, soundtracked by Hawley, followed by a Q&A session.
Opening the gig was adopted Shetlander and guitar wizard Kris Drever, who was joined by Arthur Nicholson to run through tracks from his terrific solo album ‘If Wishes Were Horses’ in a one-mic setup. Both were on great form, as ever.
Hawley said it was the first time he’d performed in this stripped-down duo format, his songs shorn of their often lush arrangements. Accompanied by lifelong friend Shez Sheridan, the pair were joined for the second half of the set by a mobile phone masquerading as a drum machine.
But what everyone was primarily there to enjoy was the vocal chords of a man who is also, handily, one of the finest musical wordsmiths operating in the British Isles today.
The erstwhile Pulp guitarist didn’t pull any verbal punches with one of his finest singles, Tonight the Streets Are Ours, played early on for “all the fuckwits who voted for Brexit”.
The set was peppered with top-notch northern wit and deadpan delivery, including a hilarious tale involving the artist Banksy.
Hawley specialises in powerfully literate songs that are all the more affecting for being grounded in gritty Yorkshire reality. Very much at home down the pub, he’d enjoyed The Lounge (“It’s great, innit”) and also sampled Captain Flint’s (“full of Russians crazed on vodka – so I only stayed for two pints!").
The duo shared not merely a stage but also, evidently, a penchant for smart boots, turn-ups, quiffs, black-rimmed specs and guitars – many of the good things in life.
Though retro influences of the 50s and 60s and singers like Roy Orbison and Scott Walker are never too far from the surface, 49-year-old Hawley has carved out a distinctive style of unhurried elegance.
For Your Lover Give Some Time is a moving vignette about the strange places love can take us (“You talk forever on the phone / To your mother and with my thoughts I’m left alone”), while Remorse Code featured some beautiful electric guitar harmonics.
Several of his Sunday-best lyrics come from ‘Hollow Meadows’ (the album title is one Sheffield reference point among many), released just last year.
They include the sepia-tinged reminisce Nothing Like A Friend, which dwells on the “gossamer thin” nature of the things we hold dear and ponders: “Will these city streets remember us? We walked them long ago”.
Pin-drop silence was the order of the day, the audience enrapt as the main set concluded with the gorgeous, gleaming Just Like the Rain and the melodically finger-picked Lady Solitude.
Both encores were drawn from ‘Hollow Meadows’, again highlighting the strength of his freshest batch of songs.
Heart of Oak was written for and dedicated to much-revered folkie Norma Waterson. “When you sang ‘Bay of Biscay’,” Hawley crooned, “the whole world it drifted away”. He could just as easily have been talking about himself.
He bid farewell with What Love Means, a gentle and touching lament about his daughter leaving home (“thank fuck she did”, he jested).
Hawley performs like a statelier Elvis, writes with bard-like eloquence and boasts a sumptuously rich baritone voice that’s simultaneously sad and soothing. It was truly a privilege to spend an evening in such exalted company.