Live Review: Neil McSweeney w/ Avital Raz at The Harley, Sheffield

Whilst a downgrade from the previous venue in terms of size, the atmosphere at The Harley, Sheffield, was warm and friendly; albeit bar-like, as I walked through the front doors. Despite it being a bar, they managed to fit in a ticket desk by the front door to ensure no randomers from the street were entering the venue without paying, which admittedly looked slightly out of place in a bar gig. The pre-gig food at The Harley was anything but a downgrade though; if you ever get a chance to catch a show there, do turn up early for one of their burgers!

The Patti Smith-esque support slot from Avital Raz, pairing classical guitar with non-classical playing alongside a kazoo, seemed to find it slightly difficult to capture the attention of the audience, as I was distracted somewhat by the noise echoing from the back of the room. Her music was pleasantly atmospheric, but would have done better at Queen’s Social Club. By the time she finished her set, I was worried that the bar crowd would see the whole event as more background music than a show to pay attention to, but I was simultaneously excited to see how Neil McSweeney coped with this climate; especially as one who has never caught a live show of his before.

Photo Credit: NMK Photography

Suddenly, the whole room’s attention peaks as McSweeney takes the stage, and my doubts are allayed as I notice Lucy Farrell and M.G. Boulter – both reputable musical talents in their own right – enter from behind the curtain to accompany the leading man. The presence of a band takes the emphasis of the “guy-with-guitar” vibe of some of McSweeney’s solo music, and their light-hearted improvisational presence between songs was also much appreciated by the audience. Through most of the set, McSweeney himself played only rhythm on guitar to accompany his vocals, with Boulter taking the lead with his own style of jazzy playing that made the songs sound a lot different from how they do on a studio mix, with Farrell’s vocal harmonies also as sublime as ever. As the group made the shift from playing older material to the songs from the new record, A Coat Worth Wearing, one could easily note the atmospheric musical differences as a departure from a previous sound.

For the two weeks preceding this show, the new album has been my go-to “chillax” album, and hearing “Land of Cockaigne” live begins reminding me why; it is a rather lovely song especially with the atmosphere McSweeney manages to create in performing it face to face. It does make me long for somewhere to sit though, as most of the seats have been moved from in front of the stage for the show, and the music does not reflect that decision by this point. All changes when the rest of the band enter the arena though; creating a very rock-and-roll sound as they blast through “Forlorn Hope” and “Danse Macabre”.

“Strangers of Maresfield Gardens”, my favourite from the new record, creates an even better dynamic live than it does on the recorded version. The band really seem to be giving it their all by this point, and the sound is incredibly hard-hitting; so much so that I notice several people actually moving away from the front because of the wall of sound hitting them from the stage. McSweeney seems to apologise too much though, for playing predominantly new material; the apologies were unnecessary, I felt: it is his show, and the launch for his new album – I think he can be excused, and if the audience would not accept that they are hardly being fair to the artist. Farrell and Boulter seem to be keeping the rest of the band together; as the other musicians do not seem to feature as much both in the sounds and out of them. I suppose this would be because they do not appear on the album – not even the drummer (as Sam Sweeney was away on a different tour and therefore not playing this show).

As someone sharing in a libertarian philosophy, the freewill element in McSweeney’s lyrics really rang poignant live and brought back fond memories of Neil Peart – although with a less technical musical accompaniment (and less-scifi) than Rush. Like the drumming Canadian Neil though, McSweeney does also share a great stage presence incorporating a persona he has total control of, which seems to wow the audience with every duck and jump as he performs. The sound helped this, as it was a lot more diverse than in the studio.

The encore, a more stripped back appearance of just Neil himself (side note: pun intended, Gaiman fans) on acoustic guitar was more what I expected the gig to be before I knew the band would be accompanying him, and in a way I feel that it may have worked better if the band had joined him for these. It seemed unusual for him to take requests for his closing songs (and lo and behold: the audience chose his most famous two from previous releases, as yet unplayed). Most of the bar crowd joined in singing along though, and not just for the choruses, which is always a great sign for both a show and performer. McSweneey began “Be Your Own Dog” in the wrong capo, but his charming persona onstage makes light of this small mistake in a way that keeps the audience entertained, and that was all that notably went wrong throughout the whole show.

On my way out, I heard someone commenting that, “he can play music of any genre, and make you enjoy it”. If anything, that sums up my thoughts of the show entirely, and I feel no further comment than that is needed to describe the colossally unexpected experience that is Neil McSweneey live.

Live Score: 8/10


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