Some might call folk singer-songwriter Will Varley the next big thing in the genre. That would, however, be doing him a disservice. As fans – or anyone else who has ever been to one of his gigs – will attest, his music and attitude to it is already something to behold. He encapsulates everything that an artist straddling the border between folk and anti-folk could: powerful command of beautiful melodies, as well as riotous foot-stomping tracks packed full of jokes and stories that run away with you.
Playing Southampton’s historic Joiners, Varley put on a show which he termed the best in his current tour and among the best he’s ever played, before following it with a disclaimer that, he promises, he wasn’t just saying that. Indeed, he has previously told The Edge about his appreciation for Southampton’s culture of live music and their ready-for-a-riot attitude.
Southampton did their guests proud, in an evening which first properly picked up with opener Xylaroo. Sisters Hollie and Coco created a rich, full-band sound despite accompaniment from a single acoustic guitar, and were met with raucous applause. Their sound hovered between folk and southern gothic, touching on the styles of Gin Wigmore, Shovels & Rope or, their hero, Leonard Cohen, but still had elements that you could definitely see getting radio airplay. Their cover of Arctic Monkey’s ‘Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ featured a fantastic arrangement that showed off raw vocal talent, but their own compositions caught the audience off guard and showcased some equally brilliant writing skills. Track ‘Sunshine‘ was written to be something inspired by Dolly Parton, and that they could imagine her playing. It works. These girls will go far.
When Will Varley took to the stage, the crowd would not stop cheering. Except, of course, when they needed to. Though he started his set with Tom Waits-esque drinking dirge ‘As For My Soul’, for which the audience formed a rowdy choir, it was shortly followed by solemn track ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. The song was written to tell the story of José Matada, the man from Angola who attempted to come to the UK by stowing away in the landing gear of a British Airways plane. When it came in to land, he fell, and was found in the streets of London in 2012 with £1 in his pocket. Showcasing these tracks from his newest album pride of place, Varley moved between emotional numbers where tears shone in his eyes, and foot-stamping jigs, so fast you almost got whiplash. He moves beyond being a talented performer, to one where at times you almost feel uncomfortable watching someone be so in touch and intimately connected with the music they’re playing. It’s powerful to see.
Of course, there was plenty of gaiety in the night, too. Varley on occasion flubbed his lines, invited the audience in on jokes, and interrupted his lyrics – though he kept strumming a rythmn – to interject with a funny anecdote. He played the soft crooning ‘From Halycon’ with a dedication to the late Bent Brief, which he played in 2014 on his ‘Rambling Tour’, and following a rowdy and eventful night, where he composed much of the song – hence its lyric, “As the sun breaks over Southampton, I’m wondering how long and how far”. Before ‘The Self Checkout Shuffle’, a song for stealing premium brand food and putting “wine through as water”, he recounted using the checkout in a Sainsburys when the attendent stepped over to him and whispered, “We’re watching you, Will Varley“. As he said at the gig, either they’d heard the song, or his “suspicions about the FBI were coming true”. Towards the end of the night, he confirmed that he did steal the melody for ‘Talking Cat Blues’ from Jonny Cash, but that admittedly “he probably won’t find out”.
As the night drew to a close, Varley was repeatedly attacked by The Joiners’ tame rattlesnakes which pretend to be a smoke machine in the corner, before he invited first opener, friends and drinking buddies Molly’s Lips on stage to give a full band sound to powerful protest anthem ‘We Don’t Believe You’, and the perfect Friday-night-last-call song ‘Seize The Night’.
With final singalongs to his most endearing hits, and pints of Guinness passed through the crowd to the stage, the night ended on a bang almost as long as the crowd’s cheers. Southampton gave Varley a great reception, and as he heads off to his largest headline gig to date at Scala in London, hopefully he’ll continue to remember us when he hits the big time.