It’s been a few years since I last saw Josh T Pearson on stage, and I must confess that I don’t recall a huge amount of his set, squeezed inbetween the moody and occasionally shouty Tenebrous Liar and the evening’s headliners the Soulsavers. What I do recall is a set where nobody was entirely sure what was going on with this guy on stage, applying a soft but strongly passionate (and slightly intimidating) voice on top of a long and wandering guitar accompaniment to songs that seemed to begin and end on a whim. And in the midst of this was a haunting rendition of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart preceded with something akin to a polite and warmly-accepted apology for attempting such a song in Manchester, as if any of us had any geographical right to intervene.
Blimey – turns out I remembered more than I thought. Anyway, that was 2007. Now, he has his own headlining tour on the back of his startling debut album Last Of The Country Gentlemen (reviewed herein), and the attention is all on him.
First up in this lovely little venue (with very strange but funky taste in wallpaper) was Richard Warren; erstwhile Echoboy, helper-outer with Spiritualized and Soulsavers and who released one of my very favourite albums of last year (see here and here for previous musings), and yet who still gets press wittering about what he ended up not doing rather than the stellar achievements above.
Anyway, for this set we are treated to a couple of unfamiliar acoustic & harmonica rousing bluesy numbers that showcased his musicianship and singing talents, followed by a couple of tracks from his Laments album – a desperately restrained How Could You Leave Me So Blind preceded by a stunning runthrough of The Devil’s My Shepherd drawing the crowd into his world. For the last two songs, the electric was brought out and the reverb whacked right up for some deep blues; unfamiliar songs to me, but almost Lynchian in their haunting twang (with a wonderfully noisy midsection that stopped the few talkers in their tracks). A short set but a great one, and I look forward to seeing just what he does next.
And then on walks Josh T. Pearson, who gets a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the crowd just as soon as he tells us that it is and then lies about his age with a grin on his face. This is then followed by a truly bad (yet endearingly so) joke regarding the name of the venue; to whit:
JTP: So, what’s the name of this place again? the Death Institute?
Audience: The Deaf Institute
Yes, quite. But all this personable banter and Christmas Cracker humour (and it got oh, so charmingly worse) is essential balance to a man whose stock in trade is, by his own admission, “sad, sad songs”. And with this, we are completely at ease with what is to follow, just as soon as his opening medley was restarted after having to stop for crowd giggles when it became apparent that he wasn’t kidding when he said he was going to open with a Boney M Cover. No Ra Ra Rasputin (which wouldn’t have been out of place with his beard), instead we have a medley of Rivers of Babylon and his own Thou Art Loosed, each song strand wrapped around each other perfectly.
And it’s while he is performing, the mood changes. He stands with either eyes closed or with them fixed on a point somewhere through the enormous glitterball of the now-packed room, and his music goes on a walkabout. Tempo, volume and intensity constantly shifting but never suddenly, always naturally and in perfect rhythm with Josh’s internal anguish and ecstacy. It’s almost at times as if his hands that pick and strum so eloquently around his amazing voice and desperately sad songs are a separate entity, clearing the space in front of it to silence. And watching these changes and flows is akin to watching a cloud of starlings in full splendour, expanding one minute and then contracting and changing direction in the same movement.
It truly is breathtaking to witness this force of nature onstage. In between songs he is charming, affable and happy, and the audience lap up these moments, laughing along with his jokes (even the Drummer jokes, resplendent with a brief snippet of Phil Collins that made him forget that he’d started playing Sorry With a Song and restarted with Country Dumb instead), occasionally heckling him in the best of spirits and throwing song requests out. But every single time he started playing, the room fell absolutely, utterly silent.
There was a very mixed audience tonight both in terms of age and social grouping, such is the broad appeal of where his songs come from. Where he sings from, we have all been to one extent or another, and the pain in each rendition was shared and dissipated in this unique atmosphere.
The main set was concluded by an old song requested from the audience entitled Devil’s on the Run, replete with singalong (really – for those who have heard Josh on record and not seen him live, this all sounds a bit strange) chorus which the Mancunian crowd initially took to in our usual mumbly way until we were coaxed into yelling at the tops of our voices by Josh’s softly-spoken but iron-clad persuasiveness and acknowledgment that “I know it’s Manchester, but leave your cool at the door will ya?”. An encore of The Singer to the Crowd later, and it was all done bar a further request to tip the bar staff and an apology that he could sing no more due to the venue’s curfew.
I honestly had no idea what I was going to leave the Deaf Institute with tonight. His songs may be the saddest things you may ever hear, but he shares them with such beauty and conviction that it’s impossible to walk away breathless and light of heart. An astonishing performer in every sense, it can never be too soon before he comes back to grace the stage once more.