Will Varley, Ida Mae & Sean McGowan at the Brudenell

On a suitably foggy Thursday evening, I headed to one of my favourite Leeds venues, The Brudenell Social Club, to catch the much anticipated live show of London-based folk singer Will Varley, with the accompaniment of a full backing band, in light of his upcoming record ‘Spirit of Minnie’. With two support acts I was also eagerly looking forward to, it was great to see the familiar Brudenell bustling with people before the doors had even opened.

Kicking off the nights proceedings was Southampton’s finest Sean McGowan, with his latest EP ‘Graft & Grief’ recently out on Xtra Mile Recordings, the audience was gifted with a set spanning his entire back catalogue, including ‘Millbrook Road’ and ‘£5.25’. Whilst the newer songs stood out with a defined and compelling presence, the older songs were also greeted with a foray of crowd sing-along and composed admiration. His introspective music I found to be both uplifting and emotive and it was clear that a huge proportion of the crowd felt the same. His vocal style is both commanding and unassuming, performing with a sense of professionalism and grace beyond his years.

The social commentary and political analogies woven into the set served to further the emotional impact of his music, something that clearly means a lot to him and something that allows him to connect well with the fans; a captivating and humanistic performer who will no doubt continue to excel beyond the limitations of a genre. This was a perfect opener for the gig and it was a pleasure to meet him after the show and purchase the latest LP.

Sean will be back in Leeds on Friday 1st June at Santiago’s. Be sure to check him out in an even more intimate setting.

Second to grace the stage was the wonderful Ida Mae, a two-piece soul/acoustic/Americana hybrid comprised of newlywed couple Chris and Stephanie. Having become acquainted with the band via their single ‘Feel Them Getting Closer’ on Spotify last year, I was curious to see how their soulful yet hard-hitting music would come across in a live environment – let’s just say that myself (and seemingly most of the audience) did not quite expect such a breathtakingly intense set. It is really quite difficult to put into words how stirring and well-crafted this band are, with the beautiful vocals of both members seamlessly entwined over a backdrop of groovy guitar riffs and hip-swinging rhythms.

The performance was absolutely drenched in charm and a humbling gratitude that shone through each time guitarist/vocalist Chris spoke between songs. Sometimes you see a band live for the first time and it completely hits the spot. This was one such occasion. It goes without saying that the couple clearly have a great personal connection that elevates their sincerity, both lyrically and musically. Following their exit from the stage I turned around to my friend and gave them that look when a performance has been so good and you know there’s no point trying to do it justice verbally. Looking around, it was clear that everyone else was doing the same.  This was a truly top class set and a band I will endeavour to see again as soon as possible.

With the crowd adequately warmed up, it was finally time for folk phenomenon Will Varley to take to the stage – at first on his own but ultimately accompanied by a full backing band for the first time ever on his near completely sold out Spirit of Minnie UK tour.

With 4 full albums, an EP and almost 20 years of gigging under his belt, it is no surprise that both the upcoming record and a live set including the new songs had the crowd boundlessly keen. Contemporary folk music has come a long way in recent years, slowly urging its way back into mainstream consciousness, as seen with the success of label-mates Skinny Lister and Beans On Toast. It is fantastic to see such a healthy turnout on a Thursday night as part of a fairly extensive UK tour. It would suggest that ‘Spirit of Minnie’ may just propel Will into that all too elusive next level of recognition – and deservedly so.

The set-list was fantastic throughout, ranging from long-time fan favourites ‘Weddings and Wars’ and ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ through to the new singles ‘Statues’ and ‘All Those Stars’, all permeating through the crowded venue to spirited applause. Not that his music is usually lacking in any way, but the added instrumentation and texture provided by the recently elected backing band gave the new songs an added vivacity that made each song incredibly memorable, despite the record not officially being released yet and only a few songs available to be heard online.

Much like the acts that played before him, Will’s set is swathed in personal anecdotes, reflections and a genuine thankfulness expressed to the crowd at every opportunity. Personally, I think this side of performing live is something that many bands overlook, much to their disadvantage. However, this certainly cannot be said for tonight. Owing to his success is his ability to communicate on a profound level with the crowd through his music and affable demeanour. The set is dramatic, thought-provoking and ferociously executed – everything you could want from a live performance. The crowd was unified in ovation as he exited the stage and was swiftly greeted by a long queue of fans at the bar. Kindly, he waited for and spoke to every single person that stuck around, chatting and signing records for people, myself included. Records in hand, I made my way home with a substantially satisfied grin on my face.

There are still 4 dates left on his run of shows in support of ‘Spirit of Minnie’ taking place on the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th February in Southampton, Cardiff, Bristol and London respectively, with the London show on the 9th being the official album launch show at the renowned Shepherds Bush Empire.

Go out and support this excellent line-up of abundantly talented grassroots music – you won’t regret it!

  • Written by

    Gary Hocking

  • Photographs by Jazz Jennings