Don’t you just love the internet? I was scrolling through Twitter on my lunch break at work and happened to see a tweet from a guy who couldn’t make Ben Ottewell’s show and had two tickets for whoever wanted them. I replied, and two minutes later they were in my inbox. For free. So it was thanks to a very generous man called Alex that I was lucky enough to see the sold-out show on Tuesday evening.
Ottewell is better known for being one of the lead singers in the band Gomez, who have been selling steadily successful jazzy indie rock albums since 1998. He branched out on his own in 2011, and has been growing in popularity alongside them thanks to singles like ‘Blackbird’. He has a new album out, called Rattlebag, released in November 2014.
The tiny, sticky venue was jam-packed with a mainly older crowd. From snippets of conversation I overheard, the audience were mostly hardcore music aficionados or musicians themselves – one man with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and the most fantastic set of mutton-chops I’ve ever seen fit the stereotype.
Mr Ottewell had two opening acts, the first of whom was a young lad called Mike Wyatt from London who, when he opened his mouth, an unexpectedly husky voice came out. He had a great bluesy sound that forgave the fact that his timing was a bit all over the place – he would have benefited from a rhythm section. In his slower tunes the gravelly vocals sounded a little forced, and I would have liked to hear more of his natural voice as it came through in a few places and sounded lovely, but on the whole, he gave a great show and I look forward to hearing his work as his sound develops.
The second opening act, Michele from The Magic Numbers, played a set of slow, cliched country songs that nearly put the audience to sleep, and unfortunately that’s the nicest thing I have to say about her so I think I’d best leave it at that.
Thus it was a relief when Ben Ottewell took the stage. It was just him and his guitar but he immediately filled the room with his presence: he’s a big, tall, bear of a man with a rumbly voice, an excellent beard and a warmth in his demeanour that makes you feel safe and relaxed, like a welcomed guest in his home. It was remarkable. I got the sense that he was a family man, which was confirmed later on when he introduced a song with an unconventional tuning that had been, in fact, a fortunate accident caused by his three young kids when they got their hands on his guitar. His obvious love for them and his partner shone through in everything he played, and the emotional investment in every note he sang was tangible and very moving.
The set was very intimate, featuring a wealth of songs from “the very first song [he]ever wrote” to Gomez tunes to tracks off Rattlebag. He took audience suggestions into account, and listened to everything people had to say, joking around with the crowd with a dry humour. It was a set that really highlighted his prowess as a songwriter, from a song he’d written on a tequila hangover (‘Tijuana Lady’) which, although its lyrics were silly, was incredibly beautiful, to a song he’d written in half an hour of a morning. “Patience and Rosaries”, one of his latest songs, has Bob Dylan-esque lyrics and showed off the deepest part of his register.
Highlights of the set for me were his version of a Gomez song, “Love is Better Than a Warm Trombone”, a jazzy stomp-along song which had everyone moving and shaking. He also played a stunning, stripped-down take on “Blackbird”, which he dedicated to some friends of his in the audience who he hadn’t seen for 17 years – there was a stunned silence after he finished and definitely some wet eyes. This was followed by a mash-up of “Starlings” and “Chicago”, as requested by a fan at the front, which melded well together and suited the stripped-down acoustic sound. He ended on a high note with “How We Operate”, following with the aforementioned “Tijuana Lady” as an encore. He finished half an hour after the supposed 11PM curfew, but nobody minded or even noticed.
There was one unfortunate incidence where Michele came on stage for a duet where, thanks to her missing the mark in terms of pitch, she threw Ottewell off as well, resulting in a winceworthy song called “Snow Don’t Fall”. It ended, we clapped politely, and tried to forget about it. Sadly it broke the spell a little but not enough to ruin it.
Overall, the mood was contemplative and appreciative rather than excitable, but that seemed appropriate. It felt, for want of a better phrase, like a gig for grown-ups. Anyone looking for a show where they could scream along to their favourite songs and dance relentlessly would have been a bit disappointed but I, and maybe this is a sign of my ancient, arthritic age of 23, was a bit relieved that it wasn’t. I thought it was soulful, thoughtful and absolutely beautiful, and I’d go and see him again and again.
Rattlebag is available for purchase on iTunes.