Richard Hawley / Lisa Hannigan

Manchester Academy, Manchester on Wed 26th Sep 2012

The Coalition Government's plans to sell off forests and woodland owned by the public, caused such an outcry last year that it led to a grovelling apology, followed by a rather embarrassing U-turn in the form of the setting up of an Independent Panel on Forestry. The Panel was asked to advise the Government on the future of England's public forests and woodlands; the single largest provider of outdoor leisure and recreation in the country. Sheffield holds the official title of 'the greenest city in Europe', with 61% of its entire area being occupied with green space. The city has an estimated 2.5 million trees; the highest ratio of trees to people of any city in Europe. Speaking about the inspirations behind his latest album, 'Standing at the Sky's Edge', Sheffield native Richard Hawley recently expressed his anger at the Government's plans to deny future generations "the freedom to get away from it get back to nature." Hawley mused that decisions should be made for the good of the majority, not the minority. It was these political and social beliefs that lay the foundations for his Mercury Prize-nominated seventh studio album and indeed the stage set for his latest headline UK tour.

Publishing its final report in July of this year, the Panel highlighted its vision of a more wooded landscape and of more woods closer to where people live. Hawley looked to share this same vision, as the tree-laden stage of the Manchester Academy came into view, dimly lit with autumnal yellow and green hues. The branches appeared to protrude out in to the audience and there was a feeling of everything and everyone being connected by a common force; nature in the outside world and Hawley within those four walls. As the lights rose, so did the applause and the resplendent Lisa Hannigan took to the stage with her ever impressive band of merry men. Hannigan performed a lively set with tracks taken from both of her critically acclaimed albums; 'Sea Sew' and 'Passenger'. Particularly well received tracks included 'Lille', 'A Sail', 'Knots' and a touching tribute to the late Levon Helm, with 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'. Hannigan said that Helm and The Band had been a particular influence upon her work. I have watched Hannigan perform in many settings, most of which have been rather intimate and with a somewhat spiritual backdrop. Part of Hannigan's thrall for me lies in her ability to captivate the listener by filling those performance spaces with the emotive power of her voice. Through no fault of her own, I didn't think that Hannigan was able to achieve this on every track due to the sheer noise that surrounded her courtesy of certain fractions of the audience.

Hawley himself commented on it early in his set and was clearly not impressed. I asked my friend, "Why would you buy a ticket to a gig, then talk all the way through and not find it in the slightest bit disrespectful, to the artist and the people around you?" A question we certainly could not answer and neither, it seemed, could Hawley. Disappointing for me as a fan of Hannigan's, but at least I've had the pleasure of listening to her in much smaller surroundings and with much more like-minded individuals.

It was my first time watching Hawley, having been introduced to his work in 2009 with the sublimely sentimental album, 'Truelove's Gutter'. If ever there was a perfect showcase for an artist's talent, this record would surely be Hawley's. The capacity audience held a diverse range of age groups, with just a small proportion being under 30 - a small but clearly well-educated group in Hawley's heritage. Kicking off his set with his latest album title track, Hawley was greeted with loud and lingering applause. This track takes inspiration from an area of Sheffield, famed for its high crime rate and Hawley has spoken of his sadness that a city so renowned for its world-class surgical equipment and steel, should also and quite ironically possess a high rate of knife crime. The title track of this album embodies the earlier referenced concept of a political and social snapshot of this point in time; be that point in Sheffield or anywhere else in the UK.

Next came 'Don't Stare at the Sun', which is a mellow, electric-tinged account of a day flying a kite in the park. Of course, nothing coming from Hawley could be quite so uneventful; the track was also influenced by a book about Isaac Newton and a friend of Hawley's who lost his partner and spent the later months gazing up in to the night sky through a telescope, hoping to catch a glimpse of her face in the stars. To listen to Hawley speak is to be truly enthralled and to know that you are getting an education, be that musical, astronomical or a self-deprecating module from the university of life.

Hawley was supported by a five-piece band, all supremely talented in their own right yet spellbinding when playing together. He stated that he had been playing with 'his brothers' since they were at school and college together in Sheffield and the practice had certainly paid off. Hawley's skills as a guitarist have been well documented over the years, but to see is to believe in this case. 'Hotel Room' followed, a track taken from 2005's 'Coles Corner'. A perfect example of Hawley's trademark soft instrumentation, this is a track which harks back to 50's rock but with a modern and quite literally cutting edge. Hawley is clearly very comfortable on stage and as such puts his audience at immediate ease. His manner is light, at times acerbic in his quick wit, but always humble and appreciative.

He regaled the audience with several stories, including the one where he told the director of Banksy film 'Exit Through the Gift Shop,' where he could shove his request of using one of Hawley's tracks in the film. A simple mistake to make; Hawley knew 'a bloke at the pub', also called Banksy and thought that it had been a practical joke. Luckily it all came to light just in time for Hawley's track 'Tonight The Streets Are Ours' to be included on the Academy Award-nominated 2010 feature.

'Seek It' followed, which is another track taken from 2012's 'Standing at the Sky's Edge.' This chilled out and quite stunning track speaks about the quest for perfection and the idea that to be content, you must be happy with what you have and who you are, as in Hawley's eyes perfection doesn't exist and if it did, "it would probably be airbrushed anyway." One of my favourite tracks from 'Truelove's Gutter' came next, in the form of 'Soldier On'. I fear that I couldn't possibly do justice to this track by any description that I could muster up. The emotions that will be undoubtedly stirred upon listening, should tell you everything you could wish to know.

'Leave Your Body Behind You', the first single from Hawley's latest album followed to rapturous applause. The heavier rock notes on this track gave the audience another opportunity to sample Hawley's legendary guitar skills as he performed a lengthy solo in the mid-section. The room erupted as this track came to its end, such was the awe that encircled the room. New album track 'Before' followed, which Hawley has stated as being one of his personal favourites from the record. Hawley described this track as the perfect finisher to the album that took him fourteen months to complete. My favourite of all Hawley's works came next, as did the audience's clear delight at this particular track being included in the set; 'Open Up Your Door'. This was used on a popular Haagen Daaz TV advertisement, so would probably be the most recognisable to those not familiar with Hawley's material. 'Remorse Code' followed and fans of 'Truelove's Gutter' were certainly being spoilt.

Throughout his performance, it looked as though the lighting had been set to resemble natural daylight, with the white and gold shades of morning streaming through the trees and awakening a new day, or a new track. Forests and woodlands had definitely been very much in Hawley's stream of consciousness when envisioning this tour, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if Hawley announced some forest gigs in the UK for 2013. After introducing his band and thanking the audience for coming along to the show during difficult financial times, Hawley performed 'Down in the Woods' from his latest album. The psychedelic rock sounds of this track matched the green haze descending upon the stage perfectly; I kept expecting to spot Kylie Minogue floating around in the manner of The Green Fairy. For his encore, Hawley performed 'Lady Solitude' and 'The Ocean', both of which were exquisite in their instrumentation. The audience was shouting for more, long after Hawley had thanked them and departed the stage.

And so, in their final report published on July 4th, 2012, the Independent Panel on Forestry concluded that '...forests and woods are nature's playground for the adventurous, museum for the curious, hospital for the stressed and cathedral for the spiritual.' In the same manner, the Panel could so easily have been referring to Hawley and the cathartic properties his music bestows upon an audience. The Panel's intention in advising the Government had been to outline 'A Woodland Culture for the 21st Century.' In supporting their vision and sharing their beliefs, Hawley created an album which could be around long after the forests and the woodlands have gone. Perhaps in that respect, he has achieved in a musical sense, what the Panel hope to achieve politically.

article by: Shelley Hanvey

published: 01/10/2012 10:13

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