William McCarthy rolled into the gentle town of Oxted (more famous for its gas tower than rock ‘n’ roll) at about 5pm on Friday, having just landed on a flight from New York a few hours earlier. Just him, his guitars, momentous voice, and stories.
After a thorough soundcheck, interview, and some food, he was ready to capture our minds, bodies, and spirit in a rapturous and riotous gig at the unusual venue of the United Reform Church.
The 200 odd souls who had packed into the place were treated to a two hour and 30 minute set of solo songs and monumental tunes from his recent album, Shelter, and the back catalogue of his former band, Augustines. This was all ably supported by local hero Hammo Mat who produced a fitting opening set of mainly self-composed songs from his new album… and on his birthday too!
With vocals and guitars tuned up, Bill (as McCarthy also likes to be known) launched into a favourite Augustines song, Landmine, to start off the show. The song’s final lines “Hold on, the whole world is on fire” seem very apt in today’s world.
One of the striking features of the many in this gig, is that songs that might be three- or four-minutes long on an album take on a whole different shape and often include elements of storytelling, audience participation, and extended arrangements that can result in renditions almost double the length of the original recorded track.
McCarthy laps up the fact that we are in a church and loves to preach that we can all “feel the spirit” tonight. Exclamations of “Holy Jeez” and “PraiseThe Lord” are met by appropriate response from the audience.
Away from Augustines, he has just finished recording his as-yet-unnamed second album (following on from 2017’s Shelter). He has also become a prolific writer and podcaster resulting in books, online scribing through the Patreon website, and his continuing series of podcasts Onward With William McCarthy.
The set on the night also takes in stories of his rides on his motorcycle including a nine-day, 3200-mile trip from California to New York. He recalls the “drug alley” border posts between Mexico and Texas, and his encounters with border guards whilst trying not to run out of gas (petrol).
The same trip also allowed him to visit the birthplace of Bluegrass music, the home of Sun Records, and the land of one of his great inspirations, Martin Luther King.
Following stories of desert adventures, dry counties, Morris Dancing, British words, and swearing, he pours a big shot of Jameson whiskey into a glass full of ice and sets up his favourite song, Moonshiner by Bob Dylan (arr).
The gig is in two parts, and the first unbelievable 90 minutes are a sweating folk frenzy of talk and song including some standout versions of the very personal Kid, You’re On Your Own and “pumping blood” song Ballad Of A Patient Man.
Whilst we pause to get our breath back and for many to visit the pop-up bar, we find that Bill is ready to go for the second half in what seems no time at all. He makes a little fun of the British and their passion for live music, listing all the things we do for it and concluding we even “shit in port-a-loos for it”.
He starts off again with Philadelphia (City of Brotherly Love) and now each song really does take a different turn, songs merge together, change, and are reinterpreted and “Dr Who.. Yeah” lyrics invented.
Later, given a choice of five types of song to choose from, the crowd opt for a Springsteen cover (that he playfully refused to name) of Tougher Than The Rest, which he sang with great tenderness while a reverend hush fell over the church.
After that it is time to raise the roof and not stop raising it until the end. A series of wonderful call and response songs follow including This Is Your Life and Time Ain’t Always By My Side.
But time is sadly up…. Or is it? One more song follows one more song, pushing the encore envelope from the given two minutes to nearly 25. Using up as much space as his guitar lead will allow, Bill strolls around the church standing on chairs and singing his heart out. Everyone joins in fist pumping the air with the choruses of Weary Eyes and Nothing To Lose But Your Head.
What a mesmerising and unforgettable performer William McCarthy is. With Augustines he mainly played large venues. Now he’s taking his music to the people in pubs, social clubs, cinemas, and churches, and thank God he is. “Hallelujah!”
Live Review and Photography by Simon Jay Price of William McCarthy at United Reform Church Oxted on 26th April 2019.
This concert is part of the wonderful Oxted Sessions bought to life by promoter Dom Damesick. The next two in the series are Filthy Friends, featuring Peter Buck (REM) and Corin Tucker (of Sleater-Kinney), and the fantastic singer songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.