Is there a more androgynous word used in the course of describing music than “Powerful”? It can mean so many things in so many different ways; from the mighty to the miniscule. For example, which is more powerful: The opening aural cyclone of Metallica’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ or Joni Mitchell’s fractured-china vocal on ‘A Case of You’? Well, both are acceptable candidates in different ways. Sound can hit you like a sledgehammer made from lead, besieging your ears until they cry for relief. But then typically, once the tinnitus fades, you’re still left standing, no worse for the experience. The kind of “powerful” that can be concocted by human fragility and pain however…well, that’s another story. Like slow-acting poison, you scarcely feel the initial waves until it penetrates your inner defences and your heart and brain begin to collapse in upon themselves. “Powerful” can be stupefying, or it can be subtle. And sometimes the most brutal, physically destructive things can be delivered by something with a touch as light as a butterfly.
Tonight, the Deaf Institute is packed as we walk in, seeming curiously truncated by the sheer scale of numbers. Onstage is a man in a check-shirt and Fender Jazzmaster guitar, wringing deft blues riffs from the fretboard as he growls out blues riffs and sorrowful ponderings. All of a sudden there is a moment of startled realisation from one of the MM party who recognises the man stood on stage as Richard Warren: a stalwart of the UK music scene since 1996 and former member of Spiritualized, Starsailor, The Hybirds, and as a ludicrous twist of fate, electro outfit Echoboy. Whose T-Shirt one of us is actually wearing tonight. No tip off, No preparation; just one of those bizarre coincidences that crop up from time to time.
Leaving aside this surreal turn of events, Warren’s set is perfectly judged and weighted. Never too powerful to lose the tenderness, never to soft as to be meandering or flaccid; it’s a low-fi take on the blues that is both blissful and delivered with just the right amount of bite. There is a hypnotic and addictive quality in his playing, it’s almost like you can see the influences of his previous bands in the webs and waves of sound that resonate from his amplifier. Finishing his set, he succeeds in gaining a significant round of applause from the audience as he leaves. Which is fully and richly deserved.
If Josh T. Pearson was a character in a Coen Brothers film, you’d still find him visually awesome and iconic. Six foot summat, drainpipe thin with a beard from the depths of the Old Testament; he steps on stage dressed smartly in a suit and black shirt looking somewhat prophetic, as if you’re not entirely sure if he’s going to sing for you or attempt to convert you. But first of all, it’s our turn to sing. Josh subtly informs us that it’s his birthday and within a few seconds, the room is filled with the soft chant of “Happy Birthday to you”. Looking somewhat flattered, Josh picks up his guitar and gently flickers out a cyclical arpeggio. Leaning into the mic, he opens his mouth and starts singing “By the rivers of Babylon…there we sat down. Yeah, and we wept…when we remembered Zion” in his bittersweet, rough-edged croon. We all know that it’s a Boney-M song but it scarcely matters: the treatment is beautiful. And then halfway through, he subtly shifts into ‘Thou Art Loosed’: the opening track from his astonishing debut album “Last of the Country Gentlemen”. Building and building his vocal and guitar, he ends up tearing the hell out of his guitar sending cascades of sound around The Deaf Institute while standing resolute, stock-still on stage. And without a pause, it’s all quiet again, flickering fingers picking over the bones of Babylon. As an opening salvo, it’s intensely beautiful. But we’re only just setting sail.
The reason I discussed the androgyny of the word “powerful” before is that in Josh T. Pearson, both definitions of the word exist within him. On one hand, he still retains the ability to literally tear walls of noise from his acoustic guitar; his hands rolling over the strings with imperceptible power from his thin fingers. The sound on the album is more restrained, but live, you hear the echoes of his former outfit Lift to Experience in his obvious love of alternate dynamics and forceful guitar parts. But as an equal foil to this, Pearson is an absolute master of the subtle scalpel cut; the whispered line or lyric that stops your heartbeat. ‘Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ’ is studded with snagging, tugging moments of sorrow. ‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’ is all bleeding, woozy bravado that hints and threatens aggression but ultimately collapses inwards: Pearson’s vow to causing chaos shuffled away by the utter misery of lyrics such as “Woman when I’ve raised hell, there won’t be a star left untouched in your sky. When my lightning crashes across that night”. Behind me, a girl sings along to the melody; almost under her breath but with a break. I look out the corner of my eye and her gaze if fixed – this is her world. There is a silence like I’ve never heard before at a gig. No-one speaks. No-one whispers. All you hear are the sharp intakes of breath and the sound of hearts breaking.
But the deathly seriousness is lifted to some extent by Josh’s wonderful, semi-ludicrous, off-the-cuff and disarming patter between numbers. Speaking with reverence and his unique Texas mumble, he’s utterly charming and hilarious; be it making bad drummer joke and wry, self-deprecating little asides. But every so often, the mask slips a little. For instance, when he’s discussing Elbow sending him a bottle of whiskey, he leads the crowd on about having a drink before saying “Be careful though. If you enjoy drinking too much, there comes a day when you’re not allowed to drink any more. And that really sucks”. Behind the smiles and the jokes, there is pain below the veneer. And the paintwork cracks all too frequently.
And then, something astonishing happens. In response to an audience request for ‘Devil’s On the Run’, Pearson implies us to sing along to the refrain (“Come on, I know you’re cool Manchester, but just drop it, just sing this”). Josh starts off:
The devil’s on the run,
The devil’s on the run.
The devil’s on the run,
Let’s have some fun...
Slowly, it begins to catch and build. First from a murmur, then to a drone, then to a spilling, euphoric crescendo: the crowd singing their hearts out into the air. Fists are raised, egos drop, the moment is utterly spectacular and one of the most incredible, life-affirming things I’ve seen in many years. Tears are in my eyes. And I’m glad that they are.
He doesn’t even bother with the ludicrous charade of going off and on for the encore: he simply stands and fidgets with his guitar strap until the applause reaches a peak and then he simply hoists the instrument back onto his shoulder and begins playing again. He is a unique and breathtaking talent; a man who eschews any convention of what a musician should be. There is no smoke, there are no mirrors. It is simple and it is magnificent. He is able to do things with a voice and a guitar that a million overdubs, choirs and key-changes could never even envisage. ‘Last of the Country Gentlemen’ is a truly beautiful record but in many ways, to see him perform live is to fully understand and appreciate his starkly unique gifts. At the end of the gig, he holds court with a steady stream of admirers coming to shake his hand and to thank him. In interviews, Pearson discusses how he was almost too afraid of recording the songs on the new record until the audience response at shows he played persuaded him otherwise. In many senses the wheel has come full circle, but in many other ways it is still spinning. Whether it is penance for his own sins or absolution for others, Josh T. Pearson’s choice to open up in such a personal way is leading to a quite remarkable response from so many people. The ability to make fellow human beings feel something deep inside and subtly lasso their hearts is one of the most wonderful and bewildering gifts that we, as people have in our emotional arsenal. You can try to break something down with overwhelming force: that’s easy. But to soften, shred and shatter your defences with ropes of tear-stained gossamer….well, that’s a true and mighty power. A quite remarkable performance from a quite remarkable artist. This gig will be talked about in the halls, hollows and hideaways of Manchester for many years to come. You don’t get the opportunity to unpick the stitching of your heart that often these days…