An excellently-crafted set made for very, very good show from one of the best performers in his genre.
When interviewing Will Varley an hour before doors opened, in a room upstairs in The 1865 very reminiscent of a 1970s living room, we talked about how he won’t play without beer and how it’s been touring with Seán McGowan. And while Seán’s set received as much support as one would expect for a fantastic, up-and-coming local singer/songwriter (I commented while there on the impressive turnout he had for 7.55pm, 25 minutes after doors opened), Will received just as much, if not more support from a crowd who seemed to adore both equally – or if they didn’t at the start, they certainly did by the end.
It’s weird seeing McGowan perform without a band now – after all, his latest tour and EP were full band as opposed to just him and a guitar as it had always been – but it was nice to hear the songs stripped back to just him, and I think it’s a testament to his songwriting and on-stage presence that he is as good solo as he is with the rest of the band on stage with him. He seems to be a pro at working the crowd, especially as it wasn’t him headlining, with just the right amount of self-deprecating humour mixed with an acknowledgement of just how far he’s come in the last year, and how much he’s achieved. While he commented that he’s finding a gag downward scale during ‘Neverland’ “Harder to do and less funny,” and that “[He does] this for a living so no wonder [he’s] fucking skint,” there’s a certain confidence he has in his own abilities. Continuing on with ‘Costa Del Solution’, a song from his Graft & Grief EP released last year and ‘Millbrook Road’, I did think that his setlist was a little slower than the ones I’ve previously seen from him. Not a bad thing, and perhaps Southampton is somewhere he’s experimenting with new material ahead of any future releases (in fact, his penultimate song was one I hadn’t heard before and one he wasn’t allowed to tell me the name of), but the comfort with the crowd was palpable as he told us a story about his grandmother. She “Ran the busiest Irish pub and raised five children at a time when it wasn’t popular to be Irish,” using a story of her as a metaphor for no matter how confusing and scary things might be, there’s always a glimmer of hope to focus on, and that we were all one big community, as he launched into his final song of the evening, ‘No Show’, completing as excellent a set as he always does.
Soon after it was Will Varley time – a singer/songwriter also signed to Xtra Mile Recordings like McGowan – and my first thought was of how bizarre it was seeing him in a 750 person capacity when he seems like someone who I’d love to see in a pub or smaller, intimate venue. Not that he seemed out of place – the opposite in fact – but he seems like an excellent choice for a smaller gig, much like the Frank Turner show at The Joiners last year. Mixing solo and band during his set (his album was his first one done with a full band), he was as fantastic live as his discography would have you believe. Starting with ‘As for My Soul’, very much a crowd favourite, he ended his first solo stint with ‘From Halcyon’, which he apparently wrote part of in Southampton, “One of [his]favourite cities in the universe”. Having heard the first full band song of the evening ‘Statues’ already during soundcheck, it was as lovely during the gig as it was then, his lyricism and folky-blues sound could sound out of place in deeply politicised songs, but it didn’t. From upbeat to politically charged to ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, about a nineteen-year-old who fell out of a plane smuggling himself into the country, he’s a performer who genuinely has crowds exactly where he wants them and seemingly supporting every musical choice he makes.
He seemed incredibly grateful the whole time at the full venue, and while not every song was as deep and meaningful as some (‘I Got This Email’ and, for one), it was certainly entertaining, and his voice and guitar playing are just unparalleled. He’s a true performer, and songs like ‘We Don’t Believe You’ that allow his audience to express their anger at the political establishment through his words for four minutes are, perhaps more unsophisticated and angry than others, but a perfect example of what it is about Varley that makes him so fantastic. As the set draws to a close and his encore starts with ‘King for a King’ (a song given a deeper meaning following his announcement that he’s about to be a dad), closer ‘Seize the Night’ was clearly the song everyone had been waiting for. Here’s hoping he returns to his favourite city in the future.
Spirit of Minnie is out now via Xtra Mile Recordings.