LIVE REVIEW: Ben Watt, Keeley Forsyth @ The Cluny 2, Newcastle (29.02.20) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Ben Watt by Antonio Olmos

On the back of the release of his latest album, Storm Damage, Ben Watt makes a welcome return to his favourite Newcastle venue for one night only to play a sold out leap year show.

Watt has never been a chap to rest on his laurels; from the many fine phases of Everything But The Girl to Buzzin Fly and his banging DJ sets through to his books and solo records, trying to second guess where his creativity will lead him is almost an impossible task. Following the highly acclaimed Hendra and Fever Dream, he once again decided on a fresh approach for his new record. Out went the layered guitars to be replaced with found-sounds, analogue electronics, scratchy tape loops, reverb heavy upright pianos, double bass and drums. The result is Storm Damage, an album that is quite simply, goose bump inducingly beautiful and his finest solo record to date.

The evening begins with the shrouded silhouette of Keeley Forsyth centre stage, contorted and bent, her head wrapped in a black shawl, slowly her voice rising from a whisper to a howl, stark avant-garde electronics punctuating her stuttering jagged movements. Over the next 25 minutes she bares her soul to a floored and silent Cluny 2, her face remaining wrapped for fifteen minutes, she channels Tilt period Scott Walker into a deeply disturbing and completely confrontational art form that is, without question, the most ‘punk rock’ thing this writer has witnessed in a very long time, she shakes you out of your 21st Century stupor, not with loud guitars, but with a bleakly brilliant and completely original performance that will leave you flabbergasted.

The arrival of Watt and his band is met with a loud roar that very swiftly drops to an intense crackling silence as the oscillating opening notes of Summer Ghosts fills the space with a textured gorgeousness and sets the tone for a mesmerising 90 minutes. Never a writer to shy away from an uncomfortable subject matter; be it loss, growing old, politics, loneliness, nostalgia or regret, his delivery is unquestionably sincere throughout, channelling his real world experiences into every ounce of each song to create atmospheres that are wholly heart-rending without ever wading into excessive self-absorbed waters, each song subtly allowing fragments of light to always pull you back from the dark.

Minimally lit, Watt skilfully works between treated piano, synth and guitars, backed to perfection by the superlative duo of Rex Horan on double bass and Evan Jenkins on drums, his vocals gliding around the sound with a dark fragility that is deeply, deeply affecting; Running with the Front Runners, Bricks and Wood, Sunlight Follows The Day, and Hendra in particular leave a spellbound audience with a tear in their eye and a lump in their throat, His amiable between song narratives reveal personal reflections on everything from his teenage kids flying the nest, through to memories of now deceased siblings, 1960s Spurs footballers to blagging his first ever gig before he’d even written a note, all of which add to the shared intimacy between consummate songwriter and enthralled audience. A rousing rendition of The Night I Heard Caruso Sing; the only nod to his former band, is followed by a dazzling Figures in the Landscape, Hand and Some Things Don’t Matter; from 1983 debut album North Marine Drive, all delivered in pin drop silence, every person in Cluny 2 hanging on every word.

Rather than the usual expected fakery of an encore, the trio remain on stage, Watt enthusing over how much he genuinely loves the venue and playing in Newcastle, before wrapping up a sparkling set with Fever Dream and Festival Song. After more than 30 years of producing some of the UKs finest and most crafted music, it’s an absolute joy to report that Ben Watt is still running with the front runners…and with gigs as good as this, it’s debatable that anyone can even get close.

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