Halfway across the stage Richard Hawley stops, shields his eyes from the glare and asks, “Where the fuck did you lot come from?” It’s been awhile since the great man has been down this way but he’s clearly lost none of his self-effacing humour. In fact, probably the only foot he put wrong the entire night happened 30 seconds later. Just before he opened with the moody, morality-riddled title track from his latest offering, ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ he asked us if we were going to ‘ave it’? Unhappy with the muted response he asked again (a bit louder this time), then finished with his own ‘lets ave it’ for good measure. It felt a little awkward, because ‘aving it’ isn’t really something you do at a Hawley gig. It’s actually more like putting on your swimmers and diving head first into a crucible of rich, orchestral splendour; a sensation akin to being immersed in a luscious, swirling whirlpool of creative loveliness, whilst fondly being caressed by that deep, dark, velvety voice.
On his last visit he chided his own lack of visual presence – ‘what did expect from four middle aged men on guitar?’ This time, the stage itself was a thing to behold. Encased by a half dozen trees gently blowing in the artificial breeze of the dry ice machine, drums and keyboards securely at his back, bass and guitar tucked in at each side, and the comforting sight of several amps at his feet, he looked as snug as a bug in a rug. With the lighting set to jaw-dropping magnificence, this was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream meets the Pre-Raphaelites; unadulterated colour and the unusual effects of lights through the trees created a dream-like quality and the perfect backdrop for his intimate music.
And boy can this band play. They are tight, polished, note perfect. I’m showing my age here, but this band are musicians in the truest sense. There are no Hoxton asymmetrical haircuts on display on the stage or in the crowd; this is performers and audience at one in their appreciation of the fine art of a steadily building wall of guitars. The new album is heavier on said guitars and has an interesting psychedelic influence, in stark contrast to his 2009 Truelove's Gutter. But Hawley didn’t over-indulge his new work, instead mixing up the old and the new. A beautifully tender ‘Seek It’ from the latest, a stunning ‘Remorse Code’ from Truelove’s Gutter. Highlight of the evening was 'she brings the sunlight, which he played at the end of the main set. With the stage bathed in purples and greens, he built it up masterfully. They encored with ‘Lady Solitude’ followed by (“there’s only one song I can play given where we are”) a version of The Ocean that was so exquisite he actually made my toes curl.
As I suggested at the beginning, what also marks an evening with Hawley is his disarming personality. Introducing ‘’Tonight the Streets are Ours’ he told a fabulous story about telling Banksy (the artist) to piss off when he asked if he could use the song in his film, because Hawley was drunk he thought it was Banksy (the drummer) from Pulp. And just before he left he invited the crowd to tell him the name of ‘the best pub in Brighton’ for his after-show beer, I couldn’t help smiling at the memory of the last time he was in town. After the gig we bumped into him in the Waggon & Horses just by the venue, and spent a very pleasant 20 minutes talking about everything from the floods in Sheffield to feeling lonely on stage and whether he’d pulled my mates wife. As I wandered into the night sky I couldn’t help wondering who would have the enormous pleasure of chatting with this charming man tonight.