We went to see what turned out to be the inaugural date of Tom McRae’s Alphabet of Hurricanes tour last night, in the reasonably tiny upstairs room of the O2 Academy2, Newcastle. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, although the fact that the doors opened half an hour late did result in moderate hypothermia. Sadly no-one has yet invented Warm Mulled Guinness1 so I was forced to warm myself on regular Guinness. You can’t beat the taste of beer out of plastic2.
Brian Wright provided a really fine support act with a stripped down one-man-and-guitar (and-beard) performance. It’s also possible he was stoned. Although I’m allergic to country I can generally suppress my immune reaction if it’s blended with healthy doses of blues, rock and folk, and it helps that he’s a deceptively intelligent writer. Of the new material I think Queen Junk (or whatever it’s called) is borderline genius. Great to hear Radar too.
Wright also provided guitar, harmonica, backing vocals and the occasional banjo for Tom’s six-piece band, the largest group he’s ever toured with and one that kicked out a lot of good noise. Tom played for about an hour and a half and delivered some powerful singing and his usual self-deprecating banter between the tracks. As near as I can remember it the setlist (in approximate order) was:
Alphabet of Hurricanes
Me & Stetson
Summer of John Wayne
End of the World News
Still Love You
My Vampire Heart
Draw Down the Stars
Boy with the Bubblegun
I can’t begin to imagine why Alphabet of Hurricanes is not on the album which bears its name. It’s a lovely song and if it’s worthy of starting the new tour it’s surely worth a place on the record. I was surprised that the new material didn’t dominate more, although the choices were undeniably the right ones. Summer of John Wayne is one of my favourites from the new album and Please was the superior downtempo version from the Recorded at Gunpoint EP, while Still Love You‘s spare charm was boosted by a bigger finish and plenty of audience participation, plus a valiant attempt to get the venue’s mirrorball working.
The benefit of the bigger band was really felt on the pacier tracks. Me & Stetson really rocked with a six-piece band behind it, as did End of the World News, A&B Song, Silent Boulevard and Boy With the Bubblegun. Brian Wright knows his way around an electric guitar. The sound was comparable to the Tom McRae Live album with a couple of notches more oomph and the benefit of an actual drummer.
The other tracks were a mix of familiar standbys but nonetheless I was very glad to hear One Mississippi, Walking2Hawaii and My Vampire Heart. Draw Down the Stars was an absolutely beautiful interpretation with some great harmonies.
We had a really fun night. Janet picked up a couple of t-shirts (the McRae one bearing a quote from that title track that’s not on the album3), and I picked up Brian Wright’s new one House on Fire which is setting off my country allergies but has some interesting material when I can stop sneezing.
As for the album, I had the benefit of Amazon’s snafu when they briefly released it on 1st Feb so I’ve lived with it a while. I really like it. Economical, bleak and uplifting it’s a throwback to McRae’s debut sound but also absorbs some americana to surprising effect. One moment he’s croaking along to plucked strings, the next delivering a soaring ballad, then singing the blues by way of The White Stripes. It feels like a moonlit walk after the expansive highway of King of Cards. Although it slowly reveals itself to be less sombre than it first appears, it’s as uncommercial as anything he’s ever done. It’s good, but it’s tough to see this being his breakout success.
1 And by ‘sadly’ I mean ‘mercifully’.
2 And by ‘can’t beat’ I mean ‘should never willingly experience’.
3 Okay, I’ll let it go.