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Boo Hewerdine - Shepherd's Bush Empire, London - 28 September 2002
On entering the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 28 September, where Boo Hewerdine was supporting Brian Kennedy, I immediately was handed a flyer about Boo—with a photo that looks a lot like him rather than the owl-screeching photo—quoting Q’s praising review and giving his tour dates and website URL. Although this still wasn’t his longed-for programme, I was pleased that he was being promoted the instant the many unknowing Brian Kennedy worshippers stepped into the hall. In fact, the keen distributor turned out to be a helpful friend of the lovely Brian Kennedy webmaster, so 10 cheers for their initiative, as I’m sure that after Boo’s set, everyone present would have been desperate for details of how to learn more about this masterful singer-songwriter.
James Taylor, always a calming influence, was playing over the sound system at the West London venue before Boo took the stage in support of Brian, with whom he and Graham Henderson also played during his later set. The Empire is a somewhat tatty red old vaudeville theatre that can hold up to 2000 people, but on this night the third level was not being used, and though the second (balcony) level was almost full of about 200 people, the standing area in front of the stage wasn’t quite filled to its capacity of about 350. The venue was used as a BBC studio theatre for almost 50 years, when it housed the likes of the Generation Game, Wogan and The Old Grey Whistle Test—so even the Beatles had performed on the stage where Boo played tonight. I was last there to see Neil Finn, when people bombarded him with paper aeroplanes requesting songs, many of which Neil played as a result. But I knew that wasn’t Boo or Brian’s style (unless the otherwise polished and well rehearsed Brian was playing solo, in which case you could shout out ‘Old MacDonald’s Farm!’ and he would sing it, with a giggle).
Our man must have been tired after all these gigs within about a week, including so many long nights when he’s played two sets, but he didn’t show it. In fact, rather than sleepily perching on a stool with his guitar as usual, Boo remained standing throughout his set this night. I am not certain whether it was because he had liked the feel of doing so at the Kirsty MacColl tribute earlier in the week, whether he’d been told how much more imposing and vitalised he looked in the upright position, whether he had cramp or whether the budget simply couldn’t stretch for a stool, but it worked wonderfully, for whatever reason. In fact, watching him wander around the mike stand a bit on his new legs made me think warmly of the first time I saw him live, around 1991 or so at the South Bank Centre with Eddi Reader and Clive Gregson—the only apparent difference being a lack of a leather jacket, a little less hair and the addition, I believe, of a beard-like structure on the chin.
As is normally the case with support acts, Boo came on early (7.30pm) to face only a partially filled venue--still about 260 people, though, many of whom were chattering throughout his songs at the beginning. I wondered if that would be a bit of a shock to Boo’s system as he probably hasn’t had that happen too much recently, as he is so often the headliner. But fortunately he’s not the prima donna type, and he simply ploughed through the job at hand and skilfully won them all over.
He started by announcing, through a worryingly unclear mike that fortunately improved when he sang, that the audience was going to have to like him and Graham because they were also Brian’s band. Boo was wearing the same outfit as at last Tuesday's South Bank concerts (it looked clean, though), and he started off with initially the same set list. With Graham seated at that mini-organ (harmonium?) again, Boo launched into a gorgeous MURDER IN THE DARK, with his eyes taking in the upper levels of the tall venue as he sang. This song is a marvellous choice as a starter for an audience that might not know him, as it has a powerful hush-factor. Though clearly, when playing the album Thanksgiving, one is immediately struck with the beauty of Birds are Leaving, I found that Murder in the Dark was so catchy yet still quite deep and interesting that it was the one I went around humming for an age after the first play. It always wins people over right away, and the Love Hurts bit at the end gives Boo an ideal opportunity to show off his now powerful voice, which he does with such style. Certainly, people were starting to hush each other and listen to the man.
Boo silently announced LITTLE BITS OF ZERO by placing the harmonica holder around his neck, and remained standing so he looked even more impressive than when he played it on Tuesday. Graham added a fine Bodhrán beat again, and the lighting people kindly added an eye-catching show of dancing light patterns, which was grand as sometimes venues don’t bother with the support acts. Boo’s voice was delivered with impassioned power and the sound was brilliantly clear in the cavernous theatre. Despite the mutter of chat continuing amongst the audience members, one easily got the impression that Boo had caught their attention, and the mutters were most likely made up of people simply saying, ‘he’s quite good, isn’t he?’
Having hooked them with his talents, he then sensibly mentioned his work with Eddi Reader, and no doubt surprised many of the audience with a ‘song I made up that she sings’ that they must have known, PATIENCE OF ANGELS. Graham’s easy accordion complemented the song more smoothly than it had last Tuesday night; it was gentler and more fitting, although the sound mix made Boo’s voice struggle a bit to be heard over the music. Again, we were treated to a subtle light show, and although everyone was watching Boo now, only a very few added their vocals the several times Boo asked them to, on the ‘there’s a door….' parts. Perhaps they were slow learners or poor singers (like me, on both counts) or just too transfixed by him to want to interfere with the aural sensations. It didn’t matter; the song truly came to life as Boo pulled back from the mike and wandered slightly towards Graham at one stage, and then held out the high notes of one of the last ‘Angels’ for an incredibly long stretch. I might have thought it was Celine Dion or Mariah Carey up there holding out that note, were it not for the fact that I was not the least bit nauseous; quite the opposite, in fact. (Mind you, maybe there’s no opposite of nauseous, unless Boo has preventative medicinal qualities….) During his final round of the door/wall etc part, Boo was belting out the words more fiercely than I’ve ever heard, and the conclusion of the song was phenomenal. I really prefer the powerful life he gives to the song, rather than Eddi’s interesting sympathetic sisterly take on it. The numerous whistles and cheers Boo earned at the end of this number showed that everyone was absolutely bowled over by it.
Introducing his next song, Boo explained it was off his new album. He pointed to the merchandise stall in the corner of the hall, where ‘all three’ (sic) of his CDs were being sold, and he offered the enticement of ‘if you buy all three…they look really good together.’ Still standing but with no guitar to hide behind, Boo sang a fairly stunning version of ROUNDABOUT, with Graham delivering a remarkable part on electric piano, as they were both bathed in purple and green lighting that somehow created a suitable atmosphere for the song that makes all jaws drop. My friend said the song would suit a film soundtrack, which I think some Boo fans have said before. (I have often thought what a brilliant business it would be to advise film people on which songs to use, since I know so many obscure ones that would be so perfect for various situations and just cry out for a film. It would promote the artists at the same time, and that type of exposure is how Elliott Smith ended up on stage at the Oscars with Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood. Boo’s repertoire could easily be tapped into—ideal film songs by Boo might be a worthwhile discussion for a rainy day. As for Brian Kennedy, I could even see helping a Disney film out with his Won’t You Take Me Home; it’s perfect for some wet, scruffy little lost and mistreated Benji type dog, isn’t it? I’m wasted really, aren’t I? I’ll let you guess in which sense I mean!)
After the loud and laudatory cheers for a sensational performance of Roundabout died down, everyone was totally focused on Boo at last. Only the large couple in front of me continued to talk throughout the rest of the set, and I admirably managed not to smack them in the head, which showed amazing restraint. By now, Boo had long won over everyone, so the noisy two were getting fierce glances from appreciative admirers who were trying to listen to this ‘new’ wonder on stage. He sensibly used what would seem to be another useful tactic for winning over Boo-virgins, ie making them aware that they are not Boo-virgins after all, as he used to be in a band they might have known called the Bible. ‘Anyone remember?’, he asked. Polite silence. ‘Just me then,’ he sighed playfully.
Boo then told the Boostory of Johnny Walker playing a Bible song recently that had prompted listeners to ring and exclaim that they were surprised that Boo was still with us. ‘You might recognise it,’ Boo said of the next song. ‘I hope Graham will’. It then occurred to Boo to ask for a ‘big hand for Graham,’ which was dutifully delivered and well-deserved. While Boo sang HONEY BE GOOD, the hall, now much fuller, was silent and appreciative. When Boo wasn’t singing, he walked to the rhythm towards Graham, who was busy on the electric piano, and when he was singing, he stood firmly with his feet apart, pulling back from the mike at the end of each verse, almost as fiercely as he did when singing Be My Wife on Eddi’s No Stilettos programme years ago. Boo standing whilst performing is definitely a smart thing; it brings everything and everyone to life.
Another totally appropriate choice for this gig was LAST CIGARETTE, as the association with k d Lang would give a clear indication to those unfamiliar with Boo that he had substantial credibility, which they would have gathered by now anyway. He held their attention with the k d Lang stool-at-Ronnie-Scott’s story, though he muttered the punch line so quietly that it was difficult to hear, but the rest of the tale already had them laughing. He earned a sizeable sympathetic mass ‘awwwwwww’, which made him quickly explain that the only reason he was telling them that story was because he would be playing at Ronnie Scott’s in November, and k d Lang would not be there. Graham helped create an amazingly moody atmosphere, assisted by a flood of blue light from above (I don’t mean heaven though) and featuring, of course, Boo’s stunning vocals, and the entire hall was silent as they listened closely—until they burst into immense applause when Boo finished.
When introducing his final number, Graham interrupted him and Boo said ‘my colleague wants to have a word,’ and he stepped away from the mike and marched over to where Graham was seated at the electric piano. They actually chatted a bit off-mike whilst we waited patiently, and I thought surely we would be rewarded with a funny joke after that, but I guess they were just discussing the notes of the next song or something. Although Boo did kindly invite all 300 or so of us to a party at Graham’s afterwards, which met with hearty cheers, but unfortunately, he forgot to give us the address. Boo began gently strumming his guitar while Graham’s piano guided us through a strong, beautiful introduction, creating a marvellous atmosphere for Boo’s raw delivery of a gorgeous WORLD’S END. It was the final sensible choice of a well-chosen set list that certainly won over the audience faster than I can recall ever having seen any support act do. I hope Boo felt as proud of his performance as he clearly deserved to do.
So then Graham and Boo left us, and had a bit of a break before returning as half of the musicians in the second act. That account will appear eventually, complete with a couple of slightly better photographs. Boo and Graham did a brilliant job accompanying Brian, although it’s a shame that Boo’s vocals didn’t play a larger part. But when up against the astonishingly talented singing percussionist Liam Bradley and the unique, unfaltering vocals of Brian Kennedy, it is difficult for anyone else to be heard, particularly when one’s mike simply isn’t turned up very loudly. But that’s all another story, and you’ve had enough long stories from me for now.
Copyright © 2002 by TC.
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