Tom McRae / Hotel Cafe

On Thursday we drove up to Edinburgh to see the Hotel Cafe tour headlined by Tom McRae. We went to the Hotel Cafe tour in Newcastle in 2006 and we saw him solo in Edinburgh last year so this fused the two experiences. The Hotel Cafe concept is a fantastic idea which manages to highlight artists you may (or may not) like while never staying still for long enough that you get bored with any one singer.

The venue this time was The Ark at the end of Princes Street, in an upstairs bar room that touts itself as something of an ideal music venue. It isn’t. It’s a very long and thin rectangular room with the stage at one end, the bar at the other end, no backstage area and the only entrance halfway down one of the long walls. As a result the artists had to wade through the audience every time they needed to get to or from the stage, the neck of their guitar poking above the crowd like a snorkel. In most gigs it might not have been such an issue but in the Hotel Cafe format — where the artists are changing all the time — it was hardly ideal. There were a few times that artists were nowhere to be found at key moments. On the plus side many of them just hung around as a result. Tom sat on the side of the stage wisecracking for most of the gig. It was so crowded we didn’t dare move from our place near the front (Janet being short enough that she can’t see anything at all if we’re too far back) so we had a very good view indeed. The “stage” was just a raised area only about a foot higher than the normal flooring.

Each artist performed two songs (generally a loud one then a quieter one), then we cycled through each artist again, and everyone came on for the finale. It was far more chaotic and good natured than that sounds, with plenty of banter and collaboration between the artists. Here’s a good picture which is not one of mine but has been shamelessly stolen from here where there are many other photos from the evening.

Tom is of course fantastic and needs no introduction. He played an excellent new song (‘Alphabet of Hurricanes’), ‘End Of The World News’, another strong new song (something about swimming out into the ocean), and ‘Hidden Camera Show’.

Brian Wright we saw when he supported Tom’s solo Edinburgh gig last year. He also played a song at the Newcastle Hotel Cafe gig even though he wasn’t officially on the line-up back then. He’s a funny, soulful guy with a great knack for witty lyrics and a sound somewhere between country, folk and rock’n’roll. He certainly knows how to rock without sacrificing quirky songwriting. He played ‘Former Queen of Spain’, ‘Glory, Hallelujah‘ and a couple of good songs I didn’t recognise, plus he dueted with Catherine Feeny who was covering another new song of his (‘Junk Queen’?) which I really liked.

Catherine Feeny was new to me and I liked her a lot. She sounds like a less poppy version of KT Tunstall or Edie Brickell, was (slightly disconcertingly) wearing a ballet outfit, and her songs (‘Mr. Blue’, ‘The Mighty Whale and Abraham’, ‘I Come Home’) were a nice blend of thoughtful muso material and catchy tunes. I picked up her CD after the gig and it’s promising so far.

Greg Laswell was also new to me. Sadly his microphone was a bit muffled (perhaps because he said he slept through the sound check) so it was hard to get a clear idea of his voice but ‘Sing, Theresa Says’ made an impression, as did ‘High and Low’. I liked him enough to get his album. (His voice with a decent microphone turns out to be extremely mournful. Overall the combination of that and a fairly narrow range of minor chords makes the album a bit samey, although undeniably beautiful.)

The wildcard of the bunch is Jim Bianco, a man who exudes a specific blend of funkyness and sleaze that makes him hugely entertaining on stage even though I have no desire to ever own one of his albums. He played pretty much the exact same set as on the last tour (‘I Got A Thing For You’, ‘Goodness Gracious’ and ‘Sing’) with the addition of a pretty formulaic ballad. I’m left struggling to imagine what the rest of his output sounds like.

Lastly Cary Brothers is “the famous one” of the group, his voice (as Tom bitterly tells us) frequently gracing the soundtrack of ‘Scrubs’. He was on the last Hotel Cafe tour too, having originated the idea in the States. As last time, his songs (‘Ride’, ‘Who you Are’, ‘Blue Eyes’) washed over me in a wave of poppy nondescriptness that really leaves me struggling to understand why he’s so popular, other than his slightly bland radio-friendly quality.

You can get a decent idea of what they all sound like from the myspace sites linked above, and from Tom’s podcast in which he chats with Catherine Feeny and plays a few records.

The main downside of the evening was a particular drunk guy who I swear was at the Edinburgh Tom McRae gig too, and who progressed over the evening from yelling reasonably amusing things during the artist banter to thinking he was the star of the show during the songs (“Oh yeah, baby”, “Come on, rock me, baby” etc.) The final straw was when he began wailing along to a quiet Catherine Feeny song he’d clearly never heard before. Thankfully my brother-in-law John, who’s much braver than me, had a quiet word in his ear for a minute or two about having paid to hear the artists not someone yelling out of tune, and he promptly disappeared with his long-suffering wife/girlfriend. This earned John a small ripple of applause from those nearby.

The other downside was the set-up of the room, which meant that it was quite difficult for the artists to join each other on stage. In particular about three of them were missing for the first verse of Tom’s ‘Silent Boulevard’ finale. Tom joked about it, but I think he was mildly annoyed. However on balance moments like this just ended up as good-natured comedy — in this instance as Tom looked bemused, clicked his fingers and shouted “line” to Brian Wright, who duly prompted with the next line.

The gig lasted about three hours all told, ending about 11.30. Overall it was a fantastic experience.

The night sky was so clear and brilliant I actually made a brief pit-stop on the way home just to stare at it. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many stars away from light-pollution. The constellations were almost lost amidst the background stars. It was a truly gob-smacking sight, and a fine end to a fine evening.

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