It probably takes a very special artist in order to persuade Peter Bruntnell to haul himself up north to fill a support slot. Peter explained that he’d booked a coach ticket to Manchester, only for the coach driver to be taken ill and an ambulance called for him part way into the journey. He then completed the journey with the purchase of a £74 rail ticket. Others might have given up, but Peter explained “I just love Bill and wanted to see him play”.
Having someone of the standing of Peter Bruntnell as the evening’s support act encouraged most of the good-sized crowd to arrive early and they weren’t to be disappointed. Performing a rare solo slot (his other most recent visits to Manchester have been with his band), Bruntnell was in fine form. The solo acoustic format not only focuses greater attention on the words of his songs but also gives greater prominence to his voice, which has become richer with maturation over the years, something that is sometimes overlooked when considering his multifarious talents. Kicking off with the evergreen ‘By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix’ Bruntnell played a well-balanced set of old favourites and newer songs. His explanation of the story behind ‘Broken Wing’ focused the audience’s attention on the words which when set to Bruntnell’s poignant delivery, produced the highlight of a high quality and well received set. The set concluded, after what seemed no time at all, with ‘Domestico’ leaving the assembled throng very grateful that Peter had caught that train.
After a short break Bill Kirchen strode unassumingly on stage, resplendent in a rather dapper looking paisley shirt and accompanied by drummer (and label boss) Malcolm Mills and bassist Paul Riley, a man well known to followers of the pub-rock scene having featured in such seminal bands as Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, Rockpile, Roogalator and The Balham Alligators alongside producing or engineering records for countless artists including Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Squeeze and Johnny Marr. So there was no shortage of talent to set before an enthusiastic crowd. Kirchen himself brought with him his trademark pine telecaster. The instrument is a story in itself. It was made from 150 year old Bowery Pine reclaimed from the attic of film-maker Jim Jarmusch by New York guitar maker Rick Kelly. As with all of his guitars over the years Kirchen has reversed the switch control so that the volume is at the front, thus allowing Kirchen to do volume swirls that emulate the sound of a steel guitar. By similarly swirling the tone control he is also able to produce a wah-wah effect without the use of a pedal. All of this adds up to a very unique and instantly recognisable sound that has resulted in Kirchen being dubbed the ‘Titan of the Telecaster’.
Beginning with ‘Get a Little Goner’ Kirchen’s three-piece band swung like a well-pitched hammock as he effortlessly belted out one great tune after another, ‘Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods’ was followed by ‘Wine Do Your Stuff’ the first of a number of Commander Cody songs to feature in the set. In 2010 Kirchen released ‘Word to the Wise’, an album that featured a number of guests collaborators and when introducing ‘Man in the Bottom of the Well’ from that album Kirchen offered a tongue-in-cheek apology for the absence of Elvis Costello from tonight’s proceedings before wryly adding, “In fact he hasn’t turned up for the last 321 gigs”. From that same album he played the title track which he explained he’d asked Dan Hicks to perform. Having sent the song to Hicks, he then explained how Hicks had substantially altered it in his own inimitable way changing “a word to the wise – be nice” to “a word to the wise – shut up”. Some of the more sedate songs like the old Commander Cody favourite ‘Seeds and Stems Again Blues’ and Jimmy Donley’s swamp-pop classic ‘Think it Over’ might have tested the voice of many a 74 year old, but Kirchen came through with flying colours showing that not only could he rock with the best of them, but that he can still sustain a note better than many a fraction of his age.
Bill Kirchen is best known by many for ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ and the guitar impressions that he has weaved into his live performance of that particular song. However, to only think of him in terms of ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ criminally under sells the enormous richness of a back catalogue of music stretching all the way back to the 1960s. Whilst he told AUK’s Martin Johnson in a recent interview, that he never tires of playing the song, tonight showed beyond all doubt that Bill Kirchen is anything but a one trick pony. Having said that though, it should be added that his blistering performance of ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ was a quite magnificent way to round off an evening of astounding quality, including Peter Bruntnell’s earlier set. When I say round off, he did return for two encores, without actually leaving the stage as it was “a long way to the basement and we have no need to blow dry our hair”. A scorching ‘Rockabilly Funeral’ complete with references to Manchester’s local motorways had even the most arthritic of limbs tapping and shaking before the evening was truly rounded off by an upbeat version of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A Changin’.
As a footnote to all of this, it was also nice to see the merchandise table charging very reasonable prices; £15 vinyl and t-shirts and £10 CDs and doing a very good trade. Other artists should take note as I’ve seen vinyl and t-shirts selling, or not selling to be more accurate, for as much as £30 on some merchandise tables recently. Put on a good show and price it right and the people will buy is the moral of this particular story.