Review by Paul Quinton
It’s a very rare feeling these days to go to a gig and not know what to expect. In the era of the Internet, with Facebook, Twitter and the other social media, not only can you find set-lists and reviews of the shows often with hours of the gig, there are usually comments and pictures being posted while the gig is actually in progress, so more often than not, the element of surprise is almost completely absent. For example, surely everyone and their dog knew Christine McVie was going to make an appearance on the Fleetwood Mac tour at some stage, so most of the element of surprise would have been lost.
This wasn’t the case with this gig, though. While being familiar with Damian Wilson’s substantial body of work, from singing with progressive metal bands like Threshold and Headspace, who released my personal choice for 2013’s Best Album, more conventional proggers Landmarq, his frequent guest appearances with artists like Rick Wakeman and Arjen Lucasson, his collaboration with Within Temptation’s Ruud Jolie on the Maiden United project, even his stint in the stage version of Les Miserables, not to mention his own albums, there was little chance of making an accurate guess at what he was going to play. However, the first surprise of the evening, was on entering the venue. The Musician is normally a fairly conventional rock club, but tonight it was arranged almost as an old-fashioned nightclub, with chairs and tables with candles, which helped produce a very warm, inviting and intimate atmosphere.
First on tonight was local singer-songwriter Fay Brotherhood, who gave us half an hour of her own material. She’s a pretty decent and inventive guitarist, and has a very strong voice, at times sounding like Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior and at others even bringing to mind Joan Baez. At first she seemed a fairly straightforward folk artist, but her songs went into some unusual themes, traditional ballads, but about the Boudiccan rebellion against the Romans at one stage and about the last resistance to the Norman Conquest at another. Not normally my cup of Earl Grey, but an interesting and entertaining set, nonetheless.
For most of this tour, Damian Wilson has been playing solo, but for some select gigs he’s put together what he calls the Ensemble, with Alan Holdsworth on keyboards, Tony Woollard on cello and occasional backing vocals from Bill Shaney, with himself on guitar, although he does play a lot of the show solo, and in keeping with the ‘unexpected’ theme, whatever he’s written on the setlist, it seems more a list of suggestions than what he and the band are actually going to play. However unstructured things are, though, one thing isn’t in doubt, that this was an absolutely terrific evening’s music. He did play songs from most parts of his career, while understandably concentrating on his solo work, the highlights of which were the rousing ‘Commune’ and a wonderful singalong version of ‘Homegrown’, and when he did delve into his work with other artists, he didn’t always play songs you might have expected. Instead of playing a more obvious Threshold song, he sang the gentle ‘Mansion,’ originally a bonus track from the Japanese release of the ‘Extinct Instinct’ album. The Maiden United song of choice was ‘The Evil That Men do’, and once more it was striking how this setting brought out the fine lyrics and the melodic depth of the original song, but the highlight of the set was ‘Soldier’, from the Headspace album, a fine song, beautifully played and superbly sung.
The Ensemble format worked really well for the songs played, and Tony Woollard’s cello in particular added an emotional and melancholic atmosphere that suited the songs perfectly, and helped to bring out what a fantastic singer Damian Wilson is. Without the need to try and make himself heard over a rock band in full flight, he was able to relax and let his voice blossom, and as a result this was probably the best vocal performance I’ve heard this year, regardless of the circumstances. Added to his customary open and outgoing stage persona, with his between song chat full of anecdotes from his career, not to mention the usual foray into the audience mid-set, when he greeted and shook hands with a lot of the audience individually, this become a fine and memorable gig. Hopefully he’ll be around with Threshold and Headspace in the near future, but this was a welcome chance to enjoy the work one of British rock’s finest and yet most under-appreciated vocalists.