Tom McRae

We drove up to Edinburgh yesterday. It’s a beautiful drive full of desolate winding roads, and at this time of year the countryside is intensely autumnal. I’ve never seen so many shades of orange.

The city itself is lovely, of course. I’ve never visited Edinburgh just for its own sake and had a proper look around, and sadly we didn’t manage to do that yesterday either. I’ll have to go back. We did walk up to the castle briefly after dark, then meandered back down past bagpipers and tourist attractions and shops selling pastel-coloured tartan (which is if possible more hideous than normal tartan.) I’d have taken pictures but the photographs on my battered old phone are terrible in low light. You can count the individual photons that make it to the sensor.

The gig was at Cabaret Voltaire, a cool basement vault with stone walls and low ceilings. It’s pretty intimate (i.e. about twice the size of our living room), but intimate is good. My brother in law reckoned the room was about the right size to be a mosh pit. As far as I can tell they host one gig per night for the entire year, so it must be a great place to see regular live music. We got there early and ended up right at the front on the left side of the stage (no seats of course, all standing), making it possible for my wife to actually see the concert without tall people blocking her view. At one point she was about two feet away from Mr McRae’s knees. This is probably a good thing.

The main downside of the venue is that there’s a whopping big air conditioning fan on the low ceiling about a metre in front of the stage which creates the impression that someone is using a hand dryer throughout the entire gig. Tom asked for it to be turned off for a few minutes, but it didn’t happen. I’m presuming there are rules about not letting the audience suffocate or die from heat exhaustion. Also there was a faint intermittent beep in the background where we were standing which was faint but annoying out of all proportion to its volume. These, you would think, are fairly major problems for a music venue, but it didn’t really spoil the music once things got going.

First up was Brian Wright. The name meant nothing to me but the moment he walked on stage I recognised his beard. There are not many men about whom this can be said. He played back-up for the recent Hotel Cafe tour, and although he wasn’t one of the four headline acts he did get up and play a song in the middle of the Newcastle gig. In appearance and musical style he’s quite reminiscent of a less softly-spoken Joe Purdy (indeed they’re gigging together in London during December), with a set of countrified Americana that is by turns homely, folksy, funky and honky-tonk. I picked up his latest album after the gig and while some of the tracks (e.g. ‘Bluebird’) could hardly be more country if their dog had up and died last week, there’s some good stuff. I have nothing against country, you understand, but it’s really not my thing unless it’s blended with other influences. However songs like ‘Former Queen of Spain‘, ‘Neighborhood’, ‘War on Wilcox’, ‘Glory Hallelujah’ and several others are great, even if the album versions lack some of the energy of his live performance. As the support act Brian seemed a bit bemused to discover a quiet and attentive audience who didn’t talk through his songs and applauded at the end. In the end I think he concluded that we were respectful rather than subdued and he seemed to genuinely appreciate it.

Then came the man himself, Tom McRae, jacketless in an open-necked brown shirt. He explained solemnly to us all that the Hotel Cafe gig had been about having fun, but tonight was about making us miserable. What can I say, he knows his audience. He opened with a couple of tracks which I hadn’t heard. I can’t identify the first at all, but the second was definitely a new one, ‘Alphabet of Hurricanes’. Both were very much in the personal angst vein of ‘Got a Suitcase, Got Regrets’, and featured some really nice turns of phrase.

The rest of the setlist was as follows. Human memory being the fragile thing it is I no longer have much concept of what order these came in.

For the Restless
A & B Song
Still Lost
The Ballad of Amelia Earhart
End of the World News (Dose Me Up)
Got a Suitcase, Got Regrets
One Mississippi
Silent Boulevard
My Vampire Heart
On and On
The Boy with the Bubblegun

A good song selection on the whole, with a lot of Janet’s old faves in particular, and something from every album. I’ll confess that ‘Amelia Earhart’ leaves me cold, and ‘Still Lost’ is only okay, but the rest are all cool. Tom was in fine voice. He has the trick of belting out quiet songs so that they sound personal even as they ring from the far corners of the room. For many songs he was supported by a keyboard player (Olli Cunningham?) and the aforementioned Brian Wright on guitar. They even provided some A Capella backing vocals on ‘Amelia Earhart’. For a three piece they made a lot of noise, especially on the more uptempo songs like ‘A & B Song’ and ‘Silent Boulevard’. For ‘End of the World News’ Tom asked us to go crazy like he was in a huge stadium and he’d played the opening notes of our favourite song of all time. It seemed to work pretty well, and it certainly loosened up the crowd. He even got some good crowd participation during some of the choruses.

I’m not normally huge on spontaneous audience participation at small venues, I’ll admit. Sure, in a big repetitive anthemic chorus, but it annoys me when people clap out of time and try to sing loudly along with the verses, inevitably getting tripped up when the singer doesn’t imitate his album delivery down to the second. There was some of that here, but it wasn’t too bad. Tom was in quite a talkative mood, and one loud (and probably drunk) Scot decided to yell “You’re a Legend!” every time he got talking. This was endearing at first, but he kept doing it and it wound up cutting short several interesting-sounding anecdotes. “You just want me to shut up and sing?” Tom concluded. On the whole, though the audience was good and had fun, and it was all very good natured.

This is the first time we’ve seen him solo and I hugely enjoyed the experience. There’s no solo tour next year but he’s back with the Hotel Cafe and we’ll definitely be there.

The scenic drive was somewhat less scenic and more taxing in the pitch black at 11 p.m. But we survived, and even got to see a fox retreating into the roadside hedge at one point.

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