Willy Vlautin at Howard Assembly Room on 4th February 2018

A various evening of music, conversation, anecdote and a literary reading proves moving and memorable.

Long-time readers will know that I have never reviewed a folk singer for Leeds Living before, and that I normally review the classical events around Leeds. Why then did the folk artist and novelist Willy Vlautin lure this lover of operas and symphonies?

It is hard to say of what exactly Vlautin’s charms and beguilements consist. I was instantly fascinated by the idea of a folk singer who also wrote novels. I listened to one or two of his songs, and saw that they were something like highly compressed, lyrical short stories. Set to broad, leisurely tempi and simple, but well-chosen chords, they made for highly fascinating and deeply moving works. What I really loved in this artist, however, became more obvious through watching his live show, where the sincerity of his music, writing and personality came across in full force.

This is a virtue which the simplicity of the music helps to bring out—a reflection which forced me to confess that, by contrast, complex music often foregrounds its artifice, quite the opposite of sincerity, and that perhaps 2018 ought to have another resolution attached (yes, I am keeping them into February): to embrace the beauty of simplicity.—But enough of that. These are very grand reflections on an artist whose humility would probably find them embarrassing.

Let us move on to the concert itself then. The format was a tad unusual, and all the better for it: We had a number of very good songs, including one instrumental. Then Willy read from his latest novel Don’t Skip Out on Me—for me, a highlight of the evening, and beautifully read—and, after this, poet and novelist Adelle Stripe joined Willy on the stage for a brief interview. This lent plenty of variety to the format, until it was repeated: another few songs, then another interview from Stripe. For me, the music and the interview each seemed to interrupt rather than complement the other, and would have been better in two larger blocks.

Accompanying Vlautin on the pedal steel was David Murphy, whose melodic inventions were sensitively suited to Vlautin’s songs, and whose beauty of tone nuanced the soundworld of the show from start to finish. It was a bit of a shame that, at times, the pedal steel seemed too loud, drowning out to a certain extent some of Willy’s lyrics, which are after all the centrepieces of his songs. Late in the concert, I realised this perspective of mine might have been owing to my seating position, directly in front of Murphy’s rather large Fender amplifier, and directly below (and so missing some of) the main public-address speakers. It is likely that the sound was more balanced for those in the rows behind me.

On the note of sound, finally, I shall just say that Vlautin’s steel-strung guitar could have sounded warmer and altogether less harsh: this is an eternal problem with the inherent contradiction of the amplified acoustic guitar, and Vlautin’s was far from the most abrasive I had ever heard.  Indeed, the only person I ever heard overcome the problem in a live setting was Thom Yorke, whose amplified acoustic guitar when I saw Radiohead (as a very young man in 2009) sounded as natural as an unamplified guitar. Perhaps it is a problem that can only be solved with Radiohead money. Personally, I think a simple acoustic and a microphone would have been fine. Or even, in the Howard Assembly Room, with its fine acoustic and polite audience, a guitar completely unamplified would have sufficed.

What united the evening varieties, and what was really the soul of the entertainment, was the art of storytelling. Whether by song, interview, literary reading, or rapport with the crowd, Vlautin showed in every moment of the show a great love of, and ability in, the narrating of a good tale. Each member of the packed audience seemed to hang keenly upon his every word, and every word was somehow at once extremely skilled and at the same time apparently artless. It is in this, the soul of the show, that Vlautin’s true charisma comes out, as we witness the deep honesty of the performer, and, allied to this, an unfailing humility—according to Vlautin, Dave Murphy is a better musician than him, his wife is smarter than he is, his brother is a genius, and so on; all this whilst never acknowledging his own successes and talents—and, lastly, his effortlessly joyful sense of humour.

My thanks go to Willy, David Murphy, Adelle Stipe, and the Howard Assembly Room for such a fine evening of music and story. I would also like to offer a second and deeper thanks to Willy for the two signed books (one for me, one for Mrs. Eager), one of which comes with a free soundtrack—and, although it’s fairly poor recompense, I hope, Willy, you enjoy the copy of my book, given to you in return!

www.willyvlautin.com

www.howardassemblyroom.co.uk

  • Written by

    Charles Eager