Most people who don’t live in Yorkshire have their own ideas of the county, brutally honest people, rolling countryside and a penchant for inexplicably eating cheese with fruit cake.
What they perhaps don’t know is that it’s an area of great contrasts, from the historic centre of York, the textile heritage and now financial services centre at Leeds to the deep industrial heritage of Sheffield, a legacy being built upon as the city rises again.
Cut Richard Hawley in half and there is a core of solid stainless steel running through, such is his love for his home city and past involvement with two bands that hailed from the South Yorkshire stronghold, The Longpigs and Pulp. Since those days Hawley has forged a sole career which has seen the release of seven full studio albums and resulted in two Mercury nominations.
Hawley’s allegiance to Sheffield was evident immediately. After opening with the powerful Which Way there was a joke made at Leeds’ expense, which largely set the tone for the evening. Hawley has a smooth and laid back style of stage banter, which is engaging and eases the crowd along with him.
Not that he would need to. The stage presence is merely a bonus to the quality of the music. Hawley’s voice sounds like a lot of other people, but at the same time like none of them. There’s some Costello in there, some Presley, rockabilly, Cocker, rock and blues, all mixed together to form a killer near two hour set charting this seasoned professional’s solo career.
Standing at the Sky’s Edge has a brooding percussion that lifts the O2 Academy crowd before they are told, bluntly and comedically, that if the next song, balled I Still Want You, “doesn’t break you then nothing will”. Leave Your Body Behind gave Hawley and his band the opportunity to demonstrate the level of musicianship that has made him one of the UK’s most respected performers, with guitar playing that only adds to the emotion already demonstrated by his singing voice. The crowd ushered in favourite Open Up Your Door, Hawley once again demonstrated his self-deprecating humour by requesting that everyone talked over the hauntingly beautifully but quiet Time Will Bring You Winter, whilst the intro to Down into the Woods has an almost Oasis ring to it and contains an amazing and psychedelic guitar section.
There was time for more recent song Heart of Oak, a particularly relevant title given the song’s strength and pounding rhythm, before the first encore, arguably Hawley’s strongest tune in Coles Corner. If the opportunity ever presents itself again to hear this song sung by this artist in a low key smokey jazz club, then it should be grasped with both hands as that is its natural environment.
Finishing the set with The Ocean, the crowd could easily have had another few hours of this wonderful music with an incredibly talented and captivating live performer who has built up such a commanding respect throughout the industry that he remains today precisely where he has been for the last 20 years, absolutely on top of his game.
And then he was off, ‘back down the motorway and home to my wife, kids and dog’ and to the largest gig of this tour, a date at Sheffield Arena. A well deserved homecoming show of disproportionately huge proportions and one which will undoubtedly mean everything to Richard Hawley, even if it will limit his comedy repertoire somewhat.