Richard Hawley is associated with his home town to the extent where you would expect his powers to diminish once he crosses over the Sheffield city limits. Even so, it’s become something of a tradition that Hawley’s pre-tour warm-up shows take place in Holmfirth.
It seems that the 52-year-old songwriter (one of the few musicians who could possibly look effortlessly cool in double denim, Hawley’s chosen work wear for the evening) may have brought a chunk of his home city with him tonight. “Where’s good to go to around here afterwards?” Hawley enquires. “Home!” someone yells out in response.
Some of his fans may not be convinced of the Last of the Summer Wine country’s charms, but it’s not difficult to see the appeal the venue holds for Hawley. The moth-bitten, lovingly preserved grandeur of the Picturedome is a natural setting for a songwriter whose twang-fuelled guitar, classic quiff and unabashedly and timelessly romantic songs all nod towards a bygone era when tonight’s sold-out venue was still in the business of screening the kind of drizzle-splattered, monochrome melodramas that Hawley’s best-loved songs were surely meant to accompany.
It’s been longer than usual since Hawley’s previous visit to Holmfirth. It turns out that the break from the record/tour cycle has helped revive Hawley’s operation. Selections from forthcoming album Further aired tonight suggest the fresh tricks Hawley has learned of late aren’t limited to a newfound ability to not name albums after areas of Sheffield. Naggingly infectious, the razor-sharp likes of Off My Head and Alone (subtle hints of fellow Sheffield-ians Arctic Monkeys, perhaps) eschew Hawley’s trademark string-laden drama in favour of sparse band arrangements and meaty hooks, sounding direct, dynamic and unmistakably contemporary.
Old material is performed with similar conviction. Standing at the Sky’s Edge - title track of the both the hit musical that has kept Hawley busy during his break from touring and the superb, uncharacteristically distorted 2012 album - practically crackles with ominous, untamed energy, as does a fierce gallop through There’s a Storm Coming, an electrifying combination of orchestral grandeur and paint-stripping guitar noise that closes the generously portioned two hour set.
Accompanied by a string quartet and Clive Mellor’s tearful harmonica, Hawley tangles his cigarette-scorched yet resonant croon around the title track of 2005’s breakthrough solo album Coles Corner in a caressing and warm manner that suggests the song (sounding more and more like a timeless classic of melancholy small hours reflection to file alongside, say, Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night in Georgia) was only written this afternoon.
The potent performances are intercepted by plenty of entertaining to-and-fro between the artist and his dedicated, adoring audience. At one point, Hawley has the capacity crowd sing Happy Birthday to his son, who turned 19 the day before the show, having first shared the full scale of his exasperation with the young man’s unwise birthday celebration rituals; by the end, you feel sorry for Hawley Jr, who is doomed to happy to have his moment of youthful daftness captured for posterity due to tonight’s show being filmed.
As the compelling set proceeds, you start to suspect that Hawley’s immunity to ego-stroking pretension and decidedly Northern, gruffly wise-cracking persona, which allows him to dish out tunes that move grown men to tears (which happens tonight during a delicate rendition of For Your Lover Give Some Time) without succumbing to cheap sentimentality, may have led to a tendency to downplay his musical ambition.
Tonight’s powerful performance leaves few doubts of the scale of Hawley’s talents.