Ben Watt is something of a Renaissance man – gifted musician, critically-acclaimed writer, DJ, producer, record label boss, nightclub owner and promoter. During the 1980s and 90s he was a pop star, half of Everything But the Girl with wife Tracey Thorn. After a long sabbatical he’s back writing and playing music again and has just released Hendra, his first solo record since 1983’s North Marine Drive.
At Cambridge Junction Watt played songs from both albums with guitarist Bernard Butler (ex-Suede). It was an intimate evening, just the two of them on stage with their guitars and rows of effects pedals. Between songs Watt spoke engagingly about how they were written. He also told us how, as a precocious teenager, he rang up Robert Wyatt and asked him to record with him (amazingly, he did). ‘I thought I grew up in a Bohemian household,’ he said, ‘but that was nothing compared to Robert’s.’
(photo copyright Chris Boland www.distantcloud.co.uk)
Whether singing or speaking, Watt’s voice is quietly strong and unaffected. Musically, the new songs recall the pastoral folk rock of John Martyn or Tim Buckley. His use of a Wurlitzer electric piano reinforces the early 70s flavour and the overall melodic and melancholic feel is similar to John Grant’s The Queen of Denmark.
In his cloth peaked cap and autumnal clothes Watt could be a member of Coldplay. When lost in concentration his round face and furrowed brow give him the look of a mournful pug. He plays beautifully with Butler – the two seem to have a telepathic musical understanding. Stick thin and floppy fringed, Butler is on evergreen form. He finger-picks his trademark Gibson 355 guitars, his mellow noodling adding splashes of colour to Watt’s aural landscapes. On a couple of songs the gentle beat speeds up a bit, though my wish for a full-blown fretboard freakout went unanswered.
It just wasn’t that type of evening. Suede played at The Junction 21 years ago. That’s a musical lifetime. When someone in the audience calls for Animal Nitrate, he is answered by a scathingly sarcastic ‘funny’ from a woman in the crowd. ‘Shall we do that one?’ jokes Ben, but Bernard doesn’t smile. The atmosphere in the seated J2 felt rather uptight and reverential, almost like we were at a classical concert. No whooping or hollering, just polite applause. I was tutted at for taking a few photos and felt reluctant to get up and go to toilet, lest I offend someone.
Hendra’s subject matter is serious and grown-up, ranging from family bereavement (Matthew Arnold’s Field), grief (Nathaniel), aging (Young Man’s Game) and hope (Spring) to gun control (The Gun). Watt’s return to making music was an artistic response to the deaths of his father and half-sister, Jenny, who died unexpectedly from lung cancer. When he picked up the guitar again Watt experimented with open tunings and found a new lease of musical life. Downbeat and sad the songs may be, but they also have poetry and power. As he said at The Junction, ‘how should we deal with these life events? Anger? Resilience? Humour?’ Watt’s answer would be ‘art’ in whatever form it takes.
Ben and Bernard encore with Spring (my own favourite), then Watt is left alone at the Wurlitzer for My Old Flame. ‘That’s all I’ve got,’ he says and leaves the stage. But you can rest assured that he’s got more songs left in him. It would be a pity if we had to wait another 31 years before the next album from this multi-talented artist.