Wednesday, 28 August 2013

25th August 2013: Damian Wilson Acoustic Session- The Old Crown,Weybridge

I think it's been a little while since I raved about something to such an extent that you wondered if I'd been brainwashed into some kind of cult, hasn't it? Allow me to indulge myself just a little, then...

See this man? See his majestic mane and his pogonophobe-baiting face furniture? I imagine he went to his 6th form careers advisor and got the diagnosis of 'Rock Musician' without even taking the test. And rock musician he is, having fronted the prog-metal band Threshold, the prog-metal band Headspace, and starred in the West End production of prog-metal musical 'Les Miserables'.

He's actually a rather big deal amongst those who know their prog-metal, having headlined some massive festival shows and toured around the globe with the aforementioned bands, as well as his acoustic Iron Maiden tribute 'Maiden uniteD' and guest spots with Ayreon and Rick Wakeman. I'm therefore extremely surprised to find that he's playing a low-key acoustic session at a pub just down the road from me, so with nothing much to do on a Sunday evening except watch 'Spinal Tap' again, and with gig buddy Tim 'Mouse' Lawrie in tow, we bundle into the Prog Passat and head on over to check out what on earth is going on. This may prove to be one of the finest decisions of all time.

Further research reveals that tonight is the first of a number of small acoustic sessions warming up for a proper acoustic tour later this year, and given the lack of promotion anywhere, I'm half expecting to be able to sit and eat a roast dinner whilst occasionally glancing across an empty pub at a man in the corner apologetically strumming away.

Well, it isn't quite like that, as the pub is already absolutely rammed when we arrive, although nobody seems to be remotely interested in getting close to 'THE VOICE', and are either hanging about at the bar, in the garden, or in the back room watching England picking up the Ashes. The giant, Aussie-baiting TV screen in the back room is presumably the reason why Damian and his guitarist are crammed into a tiny nook the size of a Weetabix packet behind the front door - so we take our spots in the 5 square feet between him and the bar, and find ourselves rubbing shoulders with a few hardcore fans, one of whom has travelled all the way down from Glasgow and rather sweetly brings Damian cups of tea all evening for his poor ickle wickle throat. (Presumably. Or maybe he just really, really likes tea.)

Eventually, it's about time to get started, and off he goes, completely unamplified, and accompanied to start with only by his guitar and that of fellow guitarist Brian Willoughby who quietly gets on with his backing job with a minimum of fuss. This part of the gig is pretty much what I expect - a selection of cracking acoustic songs, like 'Naked',  'Moment of Your Doubt', with its touching local backstory, and 'Homegrown', a song in which he talks to God about growing his own pot. As you do.

I'm absolutely hopeless at describing music at the best of times, but especially when it comes to a man with a guitar playing some songs. I think that's the best I can do - they're good, old-fashioned melodic songs, with choruses and all, ranging from quiet and introspective to good time singalongs. How I've missed out on this catalogue of tunes for so long, I have no idea.

Gather round, children, and I shall tell you a story...

Both my previous Damian gig experiences involved him singing a metal set for a festival crowd, so I know how powerfully this man can sing; and he doesn't disappoint this evening, belting out the high notes with pitch perfect accuracy. What's more, I'm so close that his voice sends visible seismic ripples through my arm flab and I can smell the Timotei in his hair - it's an experience I'm never likely to forget. However, even this vocal colossus can't keep quiet a whole pub of people who can't see him, so he's constantly having to ask for quiet, something which would spoil some of the more emotional numbers if we weren't down at the front getting an up close and extremely personal masterclass in singer-songwritering. He's joined on quite a few numbers by his brother Paul, who adds some beautiful close harmonies, troubling the spine department on a worrying number of occasions.

And if you can't get to the front, never fear, there's always out in the street.
But don't worry, Damian won't ignore you...

It's just about getting to be time for a mid-gig break when one of the chatterers from the bar seems to be pushing his way up to the front to make trouble but, no, he just wants to ask Damian if he can do something about the fact that nobody apart from me can hear. A mighty fine idea, which leads to us all ousting the last cricket stragglers from the backroom and setting up camp right down the other end of the pub, where the gig resumes 20 minutes later, with me perching on a table down the front and Tim hiding in a little hobbit hole behind the artists.

It's at this point that this gig shifts up more gears than Concorde taking off round a Grand Prix track. (Or something that makes sense.) With the crowd a little more spread out and able to engage with the performers, it soon becomes apparent that everyone in the pub was here for the gig all along - tables upon tables of people having a wonderful time and creating a two-way appreciation between audience and band. I suppose it doesn't hurt that everyone, and I mean everyone (apart from the 5 or 6 of us 'fans') appears to be a member of the Wilson family, or friends thereof. There's a third brother, who sings along louder than anyone, and heckles in all the right places, and there's Uncle Tony, and then there are Damian's sons, who get sent around with a pint pot to collect a few coppers for the poor starving artistes, and are suitably embarrassed when songs are dedicated to them and claim never to have heard them (but still look mighty proud of their Dad when they think nobody's watching.)

As we settle down, and Damian, Paul, and Brian whip through an impressive number of songs, including the jolly 'Let's Start a Commune', the roots-y 'Subway' (which prompts a good-natured brotherly argument about the lyrics) and even a wonderful cover of Depeche Mode's 'Somebody', I suddenly get this sense of being at something extremely special. The room is full of people who've obviously been there for Damian throughout his career and watched him go from strength to strength, and they're all genuinely happy to be there, proud of him and his songs - with the whole room singing along at various points, aunties and cousins and all.

Erm, you've forgotten a verse...

Mind you, he has a knack for writing songs that have you singing along even though you've never heard them before, which I catch myself doing by the second chorus of most of them, carried away on an exhilarating wave of a whole room of people having the time of their lives. I suddenly think that this must be what it's like at a folk gig in an Irish pub, not that I've ever been to one. Or to Ireland.

This instant familiarity is rather handy for guitarist Brian, who's been happily playing along all night until Damian suddenly announces him.

"This is Brian, by the way. He's never played with me ever before, and he's never heard any of these songs before in his life. He was in the Strawbs, you know."

Let's just have a moment's silence for a man who turns up to play a gig without any rehearsal or knowledge of the songs being played other than looking at the other guy's fingers, shall we?


Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'Sight Reading', doesn't it?

Eventually they seem to come to the end of what's on the setlist and start repeating some of the songs they played in the nook earlier, which nobody minds. It's half past ten (two and a half hours after the gig started), but there are no signs of either audience or band being ready to go home. So now it's Request Time. Various attendees shout out their favourite songs, which Damian comes up with various reasons not to play - 'Array of Lights' is too Christmassy, for instance, but 'Wedding Song' does eventually get played for the couple over by the door celebrating their anniversary. It's quite a lump-in-throat moment, until someone's phone starts ringing over the last chords, luckily prompting more guffaws than tuts. 

Perhaps the most touching moment of familial bonding this evening, though, comes with a rousing rendition of the Scottish folk tune 'Mingulay Boat Song' during which Damian invites his father up to sing a verse, followed by Paul, and Damian himself, and then Uncle Tony is summoned to have a go but lets the side down so the whole pub takes over the chorus for a good few minutes. I feel simultaneously like I'm part of some wonderful new family and a gatecrasher who's extremely lucky not to have been noticed.

As if the mood has become rather too sentimental, the evening just degenerates from here into insanity - there's a wonderful acoustic cover of Iron Maiden's 'The Evil That Men Do', during which everyone in the crowd gets their turn to scream out the chorus, including Damian's poor dad, then the landlady requests a Cat Stevens song so we eventually get 'The First Cut is the Deepest' after many attempts to ignore the post-it shoved under his nose.

There's even time for a reprise of 'Fable' which includes the fan-authored alternative lyrics:

"She's got legs like a table,
she's mentally unstable,
Completely disabled..."

But still nobody's ready for home, so then Damian starts going completely bonkers, making his way into the middle of the room to stand on a stool and belt out 'Satisfaction', before running about the place screeching for a rendition of Otis Redding's 'Hard to Handle' (which, despite Paul and my best guesses, is in fact not the theme tune from the BBC snooker coverage.)

One more touching family moment as he reprises 'When I Leave This Land' and actually makes his son pay attention this time (and I swear I spot the odd sneaky tear round about the place), and then at getting on for midnight, there's a seemingly inevitable finale of 'Johnny B. Goode', which has the entire place singing and raising their glasses to a fine, fine evening which I've been privileged to spend in the company of such warm and fun-loving people.

As the pub empties out and only the hardcore fans remain, Tim and I hang about to thank the artists for such a wonderful evening, and I start chatting to the other fans, explaining how privileged I feel to have been here on this unique and special evening, never to be repeated.

"Oh, that? Yeah, that was a pretty normal Damian Wilson gig."

Pfft, whatever. I reckon there was something special going on here tonight. Even if it was just Timotei and Tea.

I strongly suggest you try to catch Damian's acoustic tour at a venue near you- starting TODAY, yes TODAY, on a floating boat on the Thames near Vauxhall. I will see you there...