Sean McGowan, Ida Mae, Will Varley @ Trinity Centre, Bristol, 08/02/18

Will VarleyIn the nine years since I first graced this beautiful city, I’m ashamed to say this is my first visit to The Trinity Centre, ahead of Will Varley's headline show tonight. I can at least report (for those lamer than me) that it is a warm and inviting venue, not too big or too small; potently a little bigger than intimacy, though as the evening unfolds, each act takes a softer moment to prove me wrong.

Sean McGowan is huge on banter, and thankfully he’s not talking to himself this evening. It must surely weigh on your mind as a performer when you’ve got the opening weekday slot? But this is Bristol, and he has nothing to worry about. I arrive as he takes to the stage and the place is packed. The majority of his set is punk-like emo folk, with the kind of guitar playing that obvious hero Billy Bragg sports. The lyrics are personal and political, certainly, a warts-and-all style of writing. He wins the crowd over with a softer song “Life Has A Way”, dedicated to his nan (Margaret) and assures the crowd he’ll be back in May to play Crofters Rights.

And now for something completely different: Ida Mae are a fantastic blues/roots duo. Recently married, they delight the crowd with foot-stomping blues, slide guitar, and great vocals that see Stephanie Jeans smooth out even Chris Turpin’s rough. Like their predecessor, they too are celebrating a record deal, and we celebrate with them. It's a wonderful start to the night to see support acts strong enough for their own journey.

Lounging around my house as the last legs of January tirelessly get to February, I give Will Varley's new album Spirit of Minnie a listen. Soon after, I'm lucky enough to meet Varley himself at The Old Market Assembly Rooms. This is his first tour with a band and he’s already seven dates in; I'm keen to see how the tour's been going. "It's going really well," he tells me, "a whole new world. The band are in various other bands, and although we've always been good friends, we've never played much music together. But it feels very natural and organic." This is evident throughout Spirit of Minnie, a beautifully crafted record that see the band cocoon themselves around the trials and tribulations of Varley's life, subtly lifting the songs in all the right places. Its hard to believe it was recorded in one take, but that's how good these musicians are, he tells me: "We didn't rehearse for the recording of the record, so we just walked straight into the recording, and a lot of those songs on the album are first takes - vocals as well."

Tonight though, Varley begins as his fanbase has come to love him: just one man and his guitar. Second song in, the crowd aren’t too shy to sing along to "Weddings and Wars". Soon after he proudly brings the band on stage (as he plays a country shuffle, to laughs from the crowd). They play two tracks off the new record back to back, and this is the first chance his followers get to hear his new songs (prior to the release of his new album and a date at Shepherd's Bush Empire). Both songs take the show to a new level, and although Varley tends to lean towards the downbeat and out of luck, the lyrics and melodies of these new songs are so strong you can't help but become immersed in them; he doesn't bring you down with him. A tender moment mid-set sees the singer tell the story of "The Man Who Fell To Earth", about a chap who was hiding in the aeroplane wheels compartment and, upon coming into land, quite literally fell to earth. It's another moment where Varley leaves us all silent and spellbound.

He wraps up the evening as every artist worth their salt should: with a couple of fan favourites, "King For A King" and "Seize The Night". Sing-a-longs aplenty, a few laughs, and a healthy back catalogue that doesn't get left behind in favour of new material. Once his fans get to grips with his latest offering, I get the feeling Will Varley may need a bigger venue.

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