It’s a rainy Monday evening in Leeds, but the small queue of music fans outside Church look cheerful. They’re here to see Tom Walker, a rising songwriter from Manchester. Just a few years ago Tom signed with Sony Music’s Relentless Records and this year he released his well-received EP Blessings. With tens of millions of hits on Spotify, I’m surprised to see him playing such a small venue, and the inside fills up quickly.
The venue in question is The Chapel, part of the newly opened Church, a host which might seem appropriate for the gospel-sampling songwriter. The interior décor, however, is more hipster than holy. A giant disco ball hangs from the centre of the ceiling surrounded by gaudy crystal chandeliers, under which a large bar serves pints of Brewdog. The huge church window sits opposite ‘Parental Advisory’ posters and a neon sign reading ‘TOILETS’.
This is Tom’s first show in his string of sold-out UK tour dates, and he is supported on them by Tors, a young band from Devon. The band is fronted by brothers Matt and Theo Weedon, who do a fantastic act of warming up the crowd. Their sound is a fresh take on classic pop rock. Each track is polished and mature, their vocal harmonies just as impressive live as in the recorded versions. Most memorable is the way lead singer Matt fills the gap between tracks with effortless humour, confidently poking fun at the band’s role as ‘court jesters warming up for Tom’. The whole room laughs when he ironically asks the crowd if they had “ever seen a TV show called BBC News?” Tors’s final track is “We Say No”, a new song, before Matt encourages any die-hard fans to go the whole hog and follow the band home to their Travelodge. It’s a great performance, and if the audience is anything like me they’ll be new-found fans of Tors. The room feels successfully thawed, ready for Tom.
An unwitting audience member who happens to be the spitting image of Tom keeps getting the crowd prematurely excited at the songwriter’s arrival, before the real Tom finally slides on stage to the sound of his first song, “Sun Goes Down”. The track samples a 1930s work song and is a powerful opener. Tom’s voice is soulful, but his genre is hard to define – the band fuses soul, pop and, most notably at tonight’s gig, rock and roll. I’ve read that Tom’s music is partly influenced by Ray Charles, and I really hear some similarities in their vocals in this first track. It finishes with an electric guitar riff, and a pattern emerges as the night goes on – these guitar riffs reappear at the end of most tracks.
“Fly Away With Me” is a more acoustic number, and clearly a crowd-pleaser. Camera phones to the air, the audience sing along and move closer to the stage. The room suddenly feels a lot busier and Tom finishes the song with a smile on his face, thanking Leeds ‘for the energy’. Tom’s own energy is high throughout and he chats happily to the audience during interludes. “Blessings” comes next, inspired by Tom’s time living with 12 other musicians. It benefits from a catchy refrain – “Our lives ain’t like a movie, or a Katy Perry song” – and shows off Tom’s impressive vocal range.
The next track comes unannounced, making a slick transition into Tom’s biggest hit, “Just You and I.” It’s a highlight of the show and clearly a song the audience had come to hear – even the most reluctant dancer among them is persuaded to sway along. “Karma” follows, a rock and roll revenge song. It’s performed aggressively, such that when Tom sings the line ‘get up off your phone’ I look hastily up from my phone notes. New song, “Angels”, is well-received and reminds me of Tom’s reggae influences.
The final tracks bring the room back to rock and roll. “Play Dead” is fast-paced and concludes with the band head-banging to a drum solo. Tom’s voice reminds me of Alt J in this track. The song is about what Tom ‘would do in a zombie apocalypse,’ so it’s appropriate that his track “Rapture” comes next. It’s another ‘end of the world’ song, and our god-fearing setting feels ironic. Tom tells us the song was prompted by the political turmoil of last year. More electric guitar riffs are incorporated in the live performance of this track, and dramatic fluorescent stage lights flash in time to the drums.
“Heartland” follows, another big hit. It’s co-written and produced by Naughty Boy, and the live version features the same gospel sampling in the chorus as in the recorded – plus another guitar riff. It’s a slick performance benefited again by a catchy chorus. Tom’s final song is “Leave A Light On”, a song that has electronic, soulful and rock and roll elements all at once. It’s a neat end to a great show, and received with loud cheers from the room. It’s a fairly short set, but well-refined, and Tom promises to stick around afterwards for a beer and a chat, and to ‘sell some T-Shirts’. His exit from the stage is met by immediate cries for an encore, but he doesn’t reappear. As promised, though, he can later be found chatting to fans at the back.
It’s an effortlessly good gig, and Tom seems like a genuinely nice guy. His sound is distinctive, but I’d encourage Alex Clare and John Newman fans to give him a listen. If you want to catch either Tors or Tom Walker on the rest of their tour dates, check out their Facebook pages at facebook.com/Torsband and facebook.com/IamTomWalker
Miranda writes for Leeds Living about contemporary music in Leeds.