Sunday, 6 April 2008

Stephen Fretwell, The Troubadour

It’s a bit difficult when there’s almost a horrific mix-up which ends up with getting into the venue and almost instantly (and certainly ceremoniously) getting spat back out again. Lovely. Fortunately, palaver over and there’s a bit of time for an unspoken and rhetorical foreword: how and why does the preconception exist that one man and her guitar can’t enthral anyone as much as a full band can? And what is with the constant need to use reference points in deciding if and/or how much you like something unfamiliar? Surreptitiously sneaking into a corner with a notepad is the best way to get over the hypocrisy.

Too much thinking, time for the execution. There are two supports, Lazybones and Dawn Kinnard, offering their brand of respectively Mancunian and Pennsylvanian psych-folk. Lazybones isn’t bad, the last of his five songs the most resonant in its self-focus: “I’m singing my song of psycho-analysis”. He’s the underling in the impending masterclass – shanty strums and part-pentatonic, in fact an adequate resolve. He’s got a noteworthy harmonically discordant/suspension-infused thing going on. Kinnard appears next, as the twitchy long-lost sister of Anthea Turner, complemented by high range keyboard scatterings, a bare guitar and controlled dynamics. She’s spasmodic, wistful, and of varying tonality – mostly gauging an indifferent reaction this time around, unsure quite why.

And the main man then arrives not quite straight from sunny Scunny; Stephen Fretwell has avid watchers in their droves especially for him tonight. “Hello, it’s quite intimate here, in’t it?” The untimely absence of ‘Emily’ from the setlist is more than made up for by his dapper suit, sheer hilarity, consummate charm and of course, perennial consistency if such a superlative exists. The set is peppered with new and old, taking in fan favourite ‘New York’, a cover of a 1920s song called ‘You Belong To Me’, the anthemic ‘Scar’ and rumba-steeped ‘Dead’. Fretwell introduces each paean with a faux “deep interpretation…’cause it’s quite a low ceiling”. It’s easy to fall for the allure and the rough and precise saw that is his voice. His voice is free for reigning in the guitar’s arpeggios, yearning at the log jam, and suitably acting the troubadour. The songster frequently makes false starts in the fashion of a stand-up comedian and there may well be as much comedy as candour beneath the presence. With dreamy vocal sequences such as on ‘The Ground Beneath My Feet’, not only has Fretwell got the balance sorted but he’s showing off his verse: “It’s like we’re holding a corpse/Down every street we walk”.

It’s a 14-song set full of sensitivity and, whilst contrary to marked intention, forcibly recalls Leonard Cohen and Ryan Adams. There’s also the most beautiful lyric on ‘Run’: “a beautiful tree, it’s a shame that the root of it’s me”. The power Fretwell possesses as an artist comes from his pensive imagery, his charisma, the common and strong 4/4, and his accessibility. Whether the banter is nervous or familiar is unknown, but it makes his spirit real, his lyrics self-effacing and in combination with harmonic dexterity and expedient storytelling, superior to the recent batch of lighter-in-the-air, toe-tapping Dylan aspirants.

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