After a very successful European Tour Will Varley kicked off a UK Headline Tour, playing intimate seated venues, on 10th October in Norwich. RockShot caught up with him on the second night at The Junction in Cambridge. We have been to the main hall in The Junction, however this was a first, as the performance took part in The J2, which is the seated theatre with a capacity of just 220.
As you enter the venue, you are struck at how small and intimate it is. The seats go all the way to the front of a small raised stage, with the front row using the front of the stage as a table for their drinks. The lighting consisted of only four up lights and six downlights, complimented by four spots directed at the performing space. One the stage were two monitors, a mic stand and a table.
With about sixty people in the room, Josh Robins walked onto the stage, dressed in black, with a pint in hand, and acoustic guitar and a harmonica in a cradle around his neck. Will is showcasing local talent at each of his dates and Josh is a 22 year old, local lad from Cambridge. After his first song he was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the 60 or so people that had turned up early.
He introduced himself, and then told the audience not to worry, he hadn’t heard of himself either. He was engaging throughout his six song set, even telling us that his brother and he were big fans of Will and that he had bought tickets for his brother’s 21st. Now they got to go backstage. His set list was full of witty and observational folk songs for the millennial generation.
Second on the bill was, the wonderful, Ailbhe Reddy, who is supporting Will for the whole tour and has previously been in Cambridge performing at the Folk Festival. She has been making waves in her native Ireland and has also played at The Great Escape, Glastonbury and Latitude, and of whom, Tom Robinson has described as a ‘fast-rising Irish artist’.
The demure Ailbhe enter stage right wearing red and black tartan trousers with a red electro acoustic guitar. She had to adjust the mic, joking about her height and then blew the crowd away with her plaintiff vulnerability. She delivered a setlist of powerful folk songs about lost love, mistrust and betrayal.
Each song was sung with real emotion, etched in her face and with some exquisite finger picking on the guitar. The picks out of the set list were Distrust, Selfish and Coffee. Ailbhe has a real stage presence, a powerful voice, and struck up a rapport with the audience, that made her instantly likeable.
After Ailbhe’s set we went to charge our glasses or to have a comfort break before Will Varley took to the stage. As I exited the room I saw the man himself warming up for his performance by playing on the fussball table. He looked up with a cheeky grin as I went back in to tell Paul that he could get a great shot for the article. Paul picked up his camera and set to his mission.
Alas when we went out Will was no longer there and the bars on the fussball table were spinning on their own. The venue was now filling up nicely and there was a real hubbub in the crowd. On the stage was the solitary mic stand and a spotlight, shining as if to emphasise the vulnerability that a bare stage gives the artist. There are no gimmicks or theatrics that can distract from the performance.
As if to demonstrate his confidence in his ability to perform Will entered the stage, a can of Guinness in had, gave us a smile and nod and went straight into his opening number, Newborn. As if to show that pride comes before a fall, he looked puzzled on the second verse, and his first words to his fans were’ I’ve fucked up the lyrics already!’. This garnered the first laugh of many during his set.
He interrupted the second song on the setlist, Weddings And Wars, to tell us that it was nice to be back in the UK, as in Germany the reference to Tescos in the lyrics fell flat. He then went on to regale a story about his time in America where he had replaced the UK store with a store he had heard about in Alabama. It turned out that this store was basically a warehouse full of guns and maybe the odd coke stand! It was obvious that this was not going to be a gig in the normal sense but more ‘An Audience With…’ and no one was going to complain about that.
Will’s latest album Spirit Of Minnie has been released with critical acclaim and you could have been forgiven in thinking that he would play a lot of songs from this album, after all they are very good songs, but it became apparent that Will was going to play the stand out songs from all his albums.
The songs that his fans want to hear. Just an artist alone on a stage, armed with an acoustic guitar and a can of Guinness with 220 pairs of eyes on him, playing stripped down versions of his songs. The previous blip was not a fall, but a mere stumble as Will held the onlookers in his hand with a vice like grip.
He declared, introducing the next song, that he intended to Seize The Night. With gold lighting the stage he delivered the song whilst seeming to systematically make eye contact with each and everyone of us. In such an intimate setting this was more than possible and added to the whole feeling that he was performing for each of us personally. When he recounted about the fact that he had just become a father, and then said it involved ‘Late nights, vomit, shit and boobs….. Nothing has changed’ you felt as if he was just telling you the story.
His setlist was full of those songs of his that make you think, a great mix of humor and then the powerful words of songs we have heard many times before, for example ‘What do you think of Brexit. It’s quite a divisive subject’ and then playing The Sound Of Markets Crashing, followed by The Man Who Fell To Earth, where he hit the high note with power and control and then sang so softly that he was barely audible.
Throughout the fifteen song gig, Will Varley, had total control on what we heard. In his usual style, he was virtually singing acapella, with the guitar chords and finger picking filling in the gaps.
Whilst this is typical of his previous work, Spirit Of Minnie was recorded with a full band, so I was interested to hear the songs from this album stripped down. The two that he did, Statues and Seven Days, were brilliantly done. The vocals were delivered with seemingly no effort and with a gravel in the voice. His control on holding the notes gave an authenticity to the songs. Indeed he explained before Seven Days, that he loves Cambridge and used to play to about six people at the Upbeat Open Mic nights.
There was some humour in the lyrics of the songs at the close of the show, one being a parody of social media and a certain, leader of the free world, Advert Soundtrack and the crowd favourite, I Got This Email. Before he played these he had give us a ten minute warning we were heading towards the end of show ‘…then I will walk off stage and see what happens!’, with a wink, and then mused ‘Do we still have to use the term encore after Brexit’.
At the end of I Got This Email he laid down his guitar and went to leave the stage. Cue the mandatory clapping and stamping of feet. I do not think he managed to leave the stage before he picked the guitar back up again and closed the evening with a mesmerising rendition of February Snow and King For A King, where the audience for once came out of their trance like state to sing along.
This was a hard night to review, as reviewers normally describe the crowd dynamics – the crowd remained mesmerised, the lighting which was – minimal, (Paul will confirm that as it is a wonder that he managed to get any shots, let alone the great shots that he has), the set – again minimal. This was however a special night where one of the countries leading troubadours gave a very personal performance, the light use of the humour making the lyrics darker and allowing us a glimpse into his world and his thoughts.
Will Varley is without doubt an extremely talented musician and delivers his message with ease. After this tour he is understandably taking time out to spend quality time with his daughter, and who could blame him. We will not forget him though and will eagerly await his return to the stage. So if you have not seen him yet, get out there and get a ticket to one of the remaining dates.
Live Music Review by Tony Creek and Photography by Paul Lyme of Will Varley live at Cambridge Junction on 11th October 2018.