A Tale of Two Cities starring Bill Ryder Jones and By The Sea
West Kirby County Primary by Bill Ryder Jones is one of my favourite albums of the year alongside the Zefur Wolves debut. In fact, it is pretty well up there with one of many favourite albums of all time since it touches upon so many themes and styles that I love. I obviously shared the excitement of many for the tour promoting WKCP given the Sold Out signs slapped on the doors of nearly all of the venues BRJ has visited in the last month.
As is my wont I left my home for Gullivers in Manchester late, optimistically assuming the traffic wouldn’t be too bad, but sinkholes/roadworks and rain (always the rain) meant I was still looking for a parking spot midway through By the Sea’s set and so when I finally arrived it was in time to catch the last couple of songs. The shimmering psychedelia of Eveline reverberated off the walls of the crammed venue with a guitar line that is impossible to shake from your head. Meanwhile the closing ESP is a thing of wonder tonight and is positively transcendental thanks to the luscious sounds emitting from band and soundman. As Liam Power’s lot made their exit I cursed the fact that I had arrived late. I knew Liverpool the following night was a sell-out and that Bill Ryder Jones had been frantically apologising for not being able to ‘sort out’ friends for the show such was its over-subscription, but I also knew that a long-standing friend of mine, who I had seen once in about twenty years at a Gruff Rhys gig, had a Willy Wonka golden ticket going spare, so a texting session ensued and all was sorted for the next day. Relax.
As the opening bars of A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart opened Ryder Jones set I was even more thankful. When I had last seen Bill play in Manchester he was suffering from a bad cold, but tonight his vocals were strong and spot on. The slide guitar was majestic and the sound was crystal. The audience was reverential, quietly taking in the majesty flowing from the stage. The first offering from WKCP was the raucous Catharine and Huskisson, Bill’s paean to the scuzzy beauty of the everyday life (and nightlife) of 2015 Liverpool, although he did trip up on the celebrated “fooking fewming” line to the mirth of audience and band who looked to be enjoying performing one of the highlights of the album. The laid back vibes returned with the winsome guitar intro of There’s A World Between Us, Jack Prince’s tender brushing on the drums and Liam Power and Bill’s subtle trading of peaceful guitar lines complementing each other made this a sonic-ally perfect version of a quite beautiful song from A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart. Given that West Kirby County Primary was out barely a week prior to the gig, it was a surprise that there was a new song for the Gullivers travellers to appreciate. Liam Said It Better is a belter! The guitar refrain that runs through the song is quite gorgeous too as it twists and turns in tempo and tone. It certainly bodes well for album number four which will have to be something special to better West Kirby County Primary, as a blistering Wild Roses demonstrates.
With a chilled verse and charming lyrics and a chorus that does everything you want it to, it is performed quite wonderfully tonight and acts as a mild storm before the lull because Bill is about to go solo. The stark and lovely Put it Down Before You Break It is listened to in awed hush before Ryder Jones gives the audience a choice of By Morning I or Seabirds. The first response was for the latter and so that is what we get. The audience is utterly respectful and you can hear every tender strum and every quietly uttered syllable of the atmospheric wonder being created on stage. The crescendo of the set had been interrupted quietly spectacularly by Bill’s touching rendition of the two most sparklingly delicate offerings from WKCP, but then the set roared back into life again with Two to Birkenhead, which is perhaps Bill’s most commercial offering in some ways. As the song reaches its apex Ryder Jones launches himself into hollering “they say that desperate times call for desperate pleasures” and at the same time showing just what fine fettle his voice is in. Tonight, He Took You in His Arms is delivered with whispered longing and consummate playing. The old songs and the new meld perfectly into what, so far, has been a close to perfect set and the heartbreak of Daniel only ramps it up further. A tune of fragile warmth accompanies the saddest of lyrics and is performed with real empathy by all involved.
The band that Bill has assembled to deliver his songs show a real passion for what they are doing and there is a quest for perfection in the live setting here tonight. “Let’s make it easy for you Bill” is a delightfully ironic close to a song that questions whether things can ever get easier following the type of tragedy that is Daniel’s focus. Wild Swans lifts the mood with Ryder Jones joking with those audience members who applauded the song following the lull after the first chorus that “it’s not over till I say it’s over” before launching into the second part of the song sans something of a guitar wig out which ushered us towards the thrashing introduction to Bill’s Satellites.
Their seems to be relief that the band can just let go after the intensity of a wonderfully intricate and brilliantly brittle set and BRJ seems positively joyous just to be able to play LOUD after the gentle verses and delivery of what was a magnificent set. It was an effervescent end to a show that had the audience wrapped up and fully involved in the signals that their ears were sending to their brains. Tomorrow promised much, but world events had cast a darker pall over the gig’s aftermath as news started to filter through of the horror unfolding in Paris.
Due to the kindness of my friend’s offer of a ticket I was acting as chauffeur for the night which entailed a trip into the heartland of the Wirral. Inclement weather made this difficult as did the fact that the Wirral is not big on signposts, as did the fact that I thought I should be heading for Meols when he actually lived in Upton. Stuck in the dark at a crossroads, having previously received a text from him saying to call him when I got lost (which had made me more determined not to) I conceded defeat. He asked where I was. I told him I didn’t know but that I had passed an interminable stretch of countryside that made me consider the Wirral to be one of the top dogging spots in the North West. After some instructions and further wrong turns I found where I was meant to be and we duly made our way to District, a new Liverpool venue neither of us really knew the location of. We eventually found it and entered to a glorious garage racket proffered by Jo Mary and Friends. Initially I thought I was listening to a cover of Sister Ray and then later on in the set The Doors, so it would seem the band has the right influences, they just need to mould them into a sound of their own but they are young and time is on their side. They are certainly ones to watch since they seemed confident and comfortable on stage and were producing a vibe that promises much more.
By The Sea were next up and Liam Power’s band ably demonstrated what I had missed the previous night. Crystal Sky opened the set with its shimmering swagger which saw all the smokers and drinkers out back make their way into the venue. Liverpool’s love for psychedelia, pop and guitars has a new focus in By The Sea. The fact that their lilting eponymous debut album and the giant leap follow up Endless Days Crystal Sky don’t feature any of the next three songs; Wild Swans Chorus, Gatekeeper and Heaven Knows Magnolia, suggests things are well in hand for album number three. Liam is a great front man with a variety of vocal styles, and the sound that his band emits during this triumvirate of captivating pop is buoyant and light, a cornucopia of the past melted into a gorgeously new sound that thrills. You’re The Only One kicks off like The Cure and then morphs into a lithe but always tuneful, perfect sound. Eveline and ESP finish their set with the same shiny sparkle that had painted the walls of Gullivers the night before. You could sense from the crowd’s reaction that By The Sea are one of Liverpool’s great bright hopes for the future. And Liverpool crowds know their shit.
That said, Liverpool shows can be all sorts of things, and tonight we see the good, the bad and the ugly. For the artist they can be a challenge as the wags in the crowd always feel the need to make an input. The fact that Bill Ryder Jones is a local favourite meant that this was even more likely. When he appeared on stage it was difficult to decipher exactly what was being said, such was the chatter from the bar area in District. Danny, the sound engineer, had explained that during the sound checks on the tour he had found a “sweet spot” that was perfect for the delivery of each show and that Liverpool was no different. However, because of the increased chatter he had to abandon it to ensure Bill and band could be heard. As in Manchester A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart opened proceedings but given the song’s soft sadness it seemed many at the bar and outside had not even realised the gig had begun and the noise continued, this was the bad. Catharine and Huskisson made it clear we had begun as the thrashy delivery in Liverpool contrasted with the more concise sound of Manchester, and when Bill uttered that line tonight he was drowned out by those singing it back at him. This was the good. There’s A World Between Us once more struggled over the chatter emanating from, one supposes, those who were just over excited to be there or those who were there to be seen rather than to listen, whilst Liam Says It Better with its juicy jangle fared better. Wild Roses allowed the show to really start kicking in as a vibrant singalong to the chorus suggested both band and audience were hitting their stride.
Then came the ugly. At gigs like this there is a time and a place to be funny, preferably outside in the rain. However, as Ryder Jones started to perform the brittle Put It Down Before You Break It, one gobshite decided it was appropriate to try to have a conversation with the song’s lyrics. Thankfully, he was silenced, not in the way I would have preferred with a kick up the arse, but by those here to listen and enjoy the music making it clear he was being a dick. The sssshhhhs seemed to transmit to those at the back too as the flighty shanty Seabirds was given due attention and from hereon in the show was a real triumph.
Two to Birkenhead was utterly brilliant. The District crowd sang along to every word much to Ryder Jones happy surprise it seemed. He Took You in His Arms and Daniel continued the theme with the band playing out of their skins, the audience reveling in it, and Bill looking like he was enjoying the loving home reception each song was now rightly receiving. Wild Roses moved the show up another notch still before a thunderous Satellites saw those watching melt into a mass of delirium. The second half of the set tonight was spot on (the first half was too, apart from the noise-niks). Brilliantly performed and lapped up by a crowd for whom Bill Ryder Jones songs make perfect sense given the local name-checks and the everyday lives they detail, and this was a fantastic return for a much loved son.
Jayne Casey had explained that during the preparation for tonight’s gig everyone involved had been thinking about the Bataclan in Paris. The vicious attacks that had taken place in the French capital at venues that normally inspire joy were on everybody’s mind. So it was a lovely touch that the show closed with a love heart centred on the background of a French flag.
This sold out excursion has seen Bill Ryder Jones music getting the attention it deserves. Already dates are going up for a March 2016 tour and you would be a fool to miss the chance of catching him this time around. The album, the new song, and this band make Ryder Jones shows a must see and March will hopefully find more ears being enchanted by his perfectly crafted songs and appreciating his undeniable talent.
As an addendum, I was watching the Mercury Music Prize the night before I wrote this, and assuming West Kirby County Primary qualifies for next year’s prize, Bill Ryder Jones should be a shoe in.