“This next ones an instrumental, meaning it has no singing,” Michael Chapman announces in gruff Yorkshire tones. “Those were my mum’s favourites. She wasn’t a fan of my voice. I’m not keen either.”
This year’s outstanding album 50, a collaboration with Steve Gunn that is Chapman’s most high-profile recording since the mid-70s, and which must have slipped off the Mercury Prize shortlist due to an admin error, was named in tribute to the approximate number of years the 76-year-old Leeds-born guitar virtuoso has frequented the road.
You’d expect a musician with half a century of active duty under his belt, most of it spent on the outer fringes of the music business, to be pretty jaded at the prospect of playing a small backroom on a wet Tuesday for the umpteenth time.
That’s not Chapman’s style. Ranging from stripped-down selections from his plugged-in 70s albums (Soulful Lady, off 1970’s cult classic Fully Qualified Survivor) to sprawling, somewhat sinister and impossible to categorise selections such as It Ain’t So where Chapman’s solitary guitar rumbles and growls in a potent territory between British folk, American blues and experimental solo guitar explorers ala John Fahey and moments of moving, lyrical beauty (The Mallard), Chapman rolls out a compelling demonstration of his all-too-often overlooked skills as a guitarist and songwriter.
When he’s not busy bending the six strings to his virtuoso will, we get treated to self-deprecating banter that’s virtually begging for a drum roll at the end of each anecdote. But the closing Train – an epic, by turns propulsive and poignant showcase for Chapman’s comprehensive, road-honed mastery of solo guitar – would mesmerise even if Chapman spent the bits between the tunes staring mutely at his shoes.
Next to such a seasoned veteran, Scott Hirsch is merely a trainee road-hog. Yet being on the move permeates much of the Californian’s set, with songs from 2016’s solo debut Blue Rider Songs crammed full of references to highways and brief forays in strange towns, as well as homesickness.
Hirsch is best known as a member (and sometime producer) of Hiss Golden Messenger and shares HGM mainstay MC Taylor’s interest in American roots music, classic rock and the upmost importance of the groove.
Whilst some of the less compelling tunes in tonight’s set suggest he’s still building up enough Grade 1 originals to fill a one hour set, the four-piece band’s atmospheric, earthy sound – think of a psychedelically frazzled, sun-fried take on laidback Oklahoma icon J.J. Cale’s horizontal grooves – maintains interest even during the relative lulls in the songwriting department.
The intensely pulsating Sun Comes Up a Purple Diamond is a masterpiece of cosmic Americana but even that pales next to the rare treat Hirsch has to offer at the end of his set when Michael Chapman joins the band for an electrifying take on his own hard-riffing Fennario, which provides a rare chance to see Chapman play with a band.
Chapman needs a lyric sheet to navigate through this vintage epic (off 1971’s recently reissued Wrecked Again) but a song of this calibre, performed with such commitment and force, will undoubtedly be unforgettable to everyone present.