Tom Walker Burns Bright At The Brunel Museum

It’s a grim autumn day outside the Brunel Museum in East London. There’s no real signs posted for the show – it’s mostly secret after all, advertised largely via a small notice on Tom Walker’s website as part of his tour of underground places – and the wind blows the damp crowd to an entrance at the rear of the museum after much searching. The historic Thames Tunnel, a damp-scarred concrete slice cut beneath the urban surface of the capital is gently highlighted in imperial purple as we wait for a matinee show from the multi-million selling Scottish solo artist.

Tom Walker (Frank Fieber)

Tom Walker (Frank Fieber)
Tom Walker (Frank Fieber)

“There’s really no sneaking into this venue. That was it. Surprise!” Walker laughs after an awkward entrance down the spiral staircase leading up to the surface. “Shall we a do a gig then?” He’s cheery in person, but that dissolves the instant he begins to sing. Opening with Angels excavates a hole into our souls with a busking simplicity, with his growl carrying so much loss, despair and hope. Walker grooves to himself during Fly Away With Me, longing and planning for nothing and everything over his tortuous delicate guitar picking. Much as the 31-year-old tells us repeatedly that his music is depressing, there’s joy and optimism to spare. Just You Alone, the ‘a song about doing long distance with my missus and driving up to see her in my Renault Clio’ as the Kilsyth-hailing, Chelford-raised Scotsman calls it, sparks dance moves from a group of women at the front of the stage and swelling emotions in the rest of us. The group hold their cans of cider aloft and sway seemingly in slow motion in the lights as he lets the love he feels for his wife flow freely out to us all.

Tom Walker (Frank Fieber)

Tom Walker (Frank Fieber)
Tom Walker (Frank Fieber)

Walker’s here to introduce his new album, I Am, due for release in May 2024. It’s going to be an important album for him, based on how deeply he has dug into his psyche for inspiration. Holy Ghost, the first track he shares, is a pocket romantic apocalypse, rich in biblical heaviness and heavenly elevation. He very much plays to his strengths on his new material by adding even more cutting Larkin Poe guitar and giving himself more chances to unleash the roar he keeps hidden in his chest. The ‘song I wrote about anxiety’, Freaking Out, is a window into wishing for comfort through small atmospheric buildups and tributes to daily troubles, with gentle piano whispers adding to the backup vocal steels to betray his conflicts. In the five years since his last album as released, he’s learned to play with speed within a track to build tension before sweet release through a big chorus. This permeates all the new songs, but it’s especially present on Burn, the song he wrote after a ‘heated falling out’ with his label. As the light smoulders red, our faces glow with his remembered rage. He finally opens his mouth all the way and we realise he’s been holding back from the full force of his voice.

The vocalist is also very much a man on a mission. Stigma, his generational exploration around men’s mental health, is equal parts despair, advice and blunt trap beats to offer a helping hand to those in need. The statistics surrounding men’s suicide shocked the singer and it’s a theme that affected him both musically and emotionally when he created his next album. The scraping samples and gravel pops soundtrack the struggle he rises above at stop motion light speed on another new number, Echoes. It’s Lifeline, the song he wrote while mourning a friend, that cuts the deepest. It’s so simple and so direct, but also deliberately sparse, portraying the emptiness of an aftermath. Head Under Water, another new single planned for a release in January, is a club hangover, the anthem for a social escape attempt with its hollow yet upbeat tune.

Tom Walker (Frank Fieber)

Tom Walker (Frank Fieber)
Tom Walker (Frank Fieber)

Forty five minutes into his set, Walker apologises that he has to leave. “We’ve got another fucking gig after this!” He laughs since the second of the day’s shows planned for shortly after this show finishes. Of course, the last song needs be Leave A Light On. Each pop of his hit’s instantly recognisable melody bursts like rising champagne bubbles. Walker bobs from side to side as if he feet were on fire, stirring our response with each step. There’s no encore, and after he finishes and lets the final note fade and die, he turns and begins to pack up cables. We shuffle up the staircase in mild awe. Outside, a woman FaceTimes her friend in the rain, loudly amazed at what we’ve just seen. Sometimes, a venue and sound work perfectly together, and for a brief afternoon we experienced a magical combination of heart, growl and concrete in Tom Walker’s underground performance.

Review of Tom Walker live at the Brunel Museum on 3rd November 2023 by Kate Allvey.

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