It’s the closing night of Celtic Connections 2023. Will Varley has driven direct from his gig in Weston Super Mare last night, and is heading for Montrose tomorrow – just about the longest trip between dates that anyone makes in these lands, but he is not complaining , the venue is near capacity and the crowd of 300 plus is giggling at his songs about the end of the world. Varley’s material, he admits himself, has become increasingly downbeat. There are those performers that deliver the earnest material doggedly and there are those, like Varley, whose stage chat adds levity -frequently interrupting mid-song with a bemused smirk or a “Did I really write that ..?”
Earlier, Varley and Beans on Toast stood at the back and caught the end of Rosie H Sullivan’s short opening set, highlights being the Nick Drake like ‘So I’ve Been Told’ and a nice version of Feist’s ‘1234’. Now, Varley compliments the Outer Hebrides raised singer, clearly inspired by the reception she got. He also acknowledges Beans on Toast, “All those years ago he was the first to take me out on tour, otherwise I’d still be playing in the corner of my local pub.” The time spent at the grassroots however, in open mics all over SW London, was clearly not wasted, because tonight, it’s just him and acoustic guitar. No loops or effects pedals. His ability to shrink the room and reach the back of the hall is impressive. Varley has supported The Proclaimers on recent tours and he and Beans have both toured arenas with Frank Turner, so all are used to large venues. I stood at the Merch stall at the break and watched how everyone who approached had a story or anecdote to tell about how one of Varley’s songs or performances affected them – Varley engaged while grappling with the card reader signal and sorting through tote bags and tee’s – such is the life of the wandering troubadour.
The set itself was drawn from an extensive back catalogue with a couple of songs from at least five out of his six studio albums, dating back to ‘Advert Soundtracks‘ from 2011 on Smugglers’ Records, making this gig a bit of a retrospective. Perhaps because this was not an official tour date, he did not push ‘Hole In The Head’, his latest 2021 album. The only track from that album was ‘Dreamland’. “While flashing lights and tailbacks stretch out far behind thе wreckage” he sings. He could probably speak these songs and people would still listen, such is the strength of his latter day lyrics – here’s another one from the same song “Singer on a car radio is very clearly lying/ driver changes station to hear what he should be buying.” From that bleakness you may get a flavour that this album is Varley’s ‘Nebraska’.
There were at least two new songs. He opened the set with one of them, ‘It’s A Long Way Back To Now’. He commented that it was a risky strategy, but he needn’t have worried, as the song built to its climax it was greeted with enthusiastic approval . The other new song was written for his daughter on her birthday, when she had really wanted the latest whatever… – he mused about how she must have been “really f’king disappointed”. Earlier he pointed out that these days he has two guitars on stage, not out of any practical consideration, but mainly as a result of envy of watching other acts’ load-outs. But with no guitar tech to tune the dormant instrument he is struggling to find a use for it. Then it twigs, (maybe he’s done this before, but I don’t know), he closes out with his most light hearted song, the stage favourite ‘Talking Cat Blues’, by somehow playing both instruments at one time. You leave them laughing then you go, the old line goes.
One of Beans on Toast’s songs tonight was ‘I’m Home When You Hold Me’ (from 2015) about how he loves to spend Sundays at home. (Now home is not Essex, but in Deal on the Kent coast, neighbour to Varley and Smugglers’ Records). The irony, that here we are on another Sunday night, well away from home is not lost. But Beans is revelling in playing live music again. He had written some children’s books and songs last year and had toured these in bookshops but the thought of being back in an actual venue with adults and the chance of a beer or two and a chat with some fans after the gig was very welcome. He kicks off with ‘Back Out On The Road’, a new single and a perfect vehicle for his smoky-voiced storytelling as he celebrates the travelling lifestyle, “Singing songs and making friends / got no idea of how the night is gonna end.”
“Today feels like a Bob Marley day” he sings on ‘Watching the World Go By’ which is appropriate because in a couple of hours it will be Bob Marley Day (look it up!) ‘Album of the Day’ is about picking an album to play from start to finish as part of a musical education for his daughter who, he is pleased to note, has declared that The Pogues and Dolly Parton are her favourite acts. Whilst there are many similarities between Varley and Beans on Toast including their DIY conversational approach, Beans’ lyrics are staggeringly positive and optimistic. As for example on ‘A Beautiful Day’ and its promotion of collaboration as a way forward for the human race – “Survival of the friendliest /king for a day.”
He also tried out three new songs, the first was about drugs (a familiar subject in his catalogue) and the second was about Scotland, a new subject matter for him. Driving to Bellladrum Festival last year he realised that he had written songs about travelling all over England, but none about Scotland and this was to redress that. He asked if he should put bagpipes on the album version – the resounding answer from crowd was obvious, it’s Celtic Connections after all – and no doubt there are a few willing pipers in the young crowd. Third was a song about an iconic Yorkshire pub venue, the Golden Lion in Todmorden where he was proud to say that he had used minor chords for the first time. No doubt this will be on the 2023 album (he releases an album on his December 1st birthday every year) and it will join other classic songs about gigs at Glastonbury, Camden etc in his shows in future. The set ended with a few of his classics including ‘MDMA’ ‘A Whole Lot Of Loving’ 2014 and ‘Chicken Song’.