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Bill Ryder-Jones Castle and Falcon Birmingham review
Blaise Radley spent a night in Birmingham enthralled by the lyrical prowess of Bill Ryder-Jones.
Date published: 18th Feb 2019
To look at Bill Ryder-Jones, you’d think he was a fresh-faced upstart; a man in his early 20s on the break. And yet, his youthful charms bely his elder statesman status — at 35 he’s released four acclaimed solo albums, several soundtracks, dabbled in producing (most notably with The Wytches debut album), not to mention his run as the lead guitarist for The Coral way back when. Such a wide spanning career was appropriately reflected by the sold-out crowd a the Castle & Falcon in Birmingham on February 16th, a motley mix of old and young; men and women; pissed-drunk and polite head-nodders.
It takes a remarkably singular voice to step on stage with nothing more than a Fender Jaguar, especially as the opening act, but Brooke Brentham was a good fit with Ryder-Jones. She offered little in the way of introduction or between song chatter, and when she did talk it felt consciously awkward, but her emotive tracks acted as mini-confessionals in their own right. There's a touch St. Vincent in her DNA, and a spot of Mitski too, but with such an assured vocal delivery it hardly mattered. At the end of her set Brentham apologised for her voice going, but the already rammed room seemed none the wiser.
Despite being backed by a handful of musicians where his support wasn't, Bill Ryder-Jones was an equally commanding presence on stage. He sauntered up to the microphone, peering comically into the crowd and asked “Are youse at the right gig?” before rustling up a gin and tonic ahead of the proper proceedings. As a tone setter it was remarkably effective, drawing the audience into a personal relationship with the artist, whilst also defusing any sense of urgency. Given that the set ended up running to two hours in length, such a charmingly nonchalant attitude worked wonders.
This breezy attitude made for a marked difference from his persona when playing, as he steadily stared downwards with the kind of morbid expression that suggested both weariness and deep-seated depression. It's telling that his last album was titled Yawn, and though he jokingly pulled wide his shirt to reveal a white tee emblazoned with the record's title, a more serious exhaustion runs through all his music. When he sang "I have this dream where I’m alive" on poignant set opener ‘Mither’, it resonated deeply through the crowd.
The length of the venue alongside the nooks and alcoves made the whole experience sermon-like, though the crowd was a little more prone to heckling than your average churchgoers. On a remarkable number of occasions Ryder-Jones was forced to tell pockets of people to shut up, even deputising other audience members to shush a particularly loud contingent at the back. At one point he said flippantly “Have some consideration for those around you. Believe me they don't wanna hear about your fucking week.” causing the whole crowd — bar those talking presumably — to erupt into applause. Given the barbed interactions between songs, all of which resulted in waves of hysterical laughter, the performance was as much a stand-up routine as it was musical.
This call and response atmosphere fit the middle portion of the set which saw the band leave the stage, and Ryder-Jones offer himself up to requests "within reason". Starting with 'Christina', he cycled through other fan favourites ‘Seabirds’ and ‘John’, whilst engaging in more audience interactions concerning face stabbings and songs he couldn’t remember how to play. Through it all Ryder-Jones was affable and spritely, the tonal opposite of his dour singing. It’s evident he really loves to connect with individual people in his audience, and when he proclaimed at the end “This has been the best gig of the tour”, for once it actually seemed genuine.