It could have all been so different for Ed Harcourt.
The London musician’s career started on a high with debut album Here Be Monsters being nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2001. But while his output has remained consistently high he’s failed to make a commercial breakthrough and has witnessed those who mine a similar field, such as Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright, eclipse his star.
He could be forgiven for taking umbrage at this and turning his hand to other trades. His facial hair and chunky jewellery suggest he’s an extra in The Three Musketeers but, in recent years, he’s written material for the likes of Marianne Faithfull and Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
Now he seems to be changing tack again, with the first of tonight’s sets being dedicated to new album Beyond The End. An informal pitch for soundtrack commissions, the instrumental work is primarily based on the piano, which is his “first instrument and first love.”
Sparse and rich with emotional echoes, he conjures moods of memory and loss on the neo-classical ‘Diving Bell’ and ‘Duet For Ghosts’. Punctuated by sweeps of violin and cello from his three-piece band – introduced as musicians “as I feel like [Anchorman’s] Ron Burgundy if I call them ladies” – it’s pleasant but commands attention in this setting mainly because of the meditative videos.
The exception to this is ‘Keep Us Safe’, on which he builds a backing track from guitar loops. Angrier than the other material, it switches mood and emotion when he returns to the piano.
Evocative as it is, it lacks the intrinsic drama and theatrics of the vocal material he plays during the second career-spanning set. From the bluesy fire of ‘Furnaces’, the vaudevillian piano lines on ‘Black Dress’, and the chamber-pop of ‘The Music Box’, he musically delivers on his jokey threat to make the audience “sink in a sea of moroseness.”
The overall set is nonetheless saved from becoming too melancholy or serious by his natural stage presence. He seems to be in his element when serenading the audience on ‘Until Tomorrow Then’, which is sung to just a crackly string pre-record on his laptop, and on the acoustic ‘Born In The ‘70s’ he walks through the crowd and leans over to peer at people eyeball to eyeball.
It could all have been so different for Ed Harcourt.
But tonight it’s to the audience’s advantage that he’s never transcended cult status and continues to work such intimate spaces.