Monday nights are fast starting to get a bit special in Leeds, and it is all down to those regular events being held at the city’s Gaslight Club. Taking its name and cue from the famous New York coffee-house where Bob Dylan first emerged blinking into the daylight of folk fame, the venue promotes local talent who are often similarly unsigned and invariably unknown outside of the city limits. Hosted by a genial ex-pat Scot in Gary Stewart – who also gets these evenings nicely under way with a handful of his own songs – they have started to break free of the narrower confines of the more customary folk infused singer-songwriter brand to embrace a series of far more musically diverse acts. A fortnight back the headliners were the exquisitely named and equally quite magnificent The Wonderful Sound of the Cinema Organ with their inspirational fusion of jazz, gospel and contemporary orchestration; tonight it is the turn of Syd Arthur who, phonetically at least, seem to have taken their name from Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha and have set out to chart a similar journey of self-discovery through the grandiloquence of their music.
Located in one half of the Oporto Bar in the popular and very busy Calls area of Leeds, the seating in the Gaslight Club is arranged around a series of circular, candle-lit tables. The emphasis is on the word intimate. The stage lies, quite literally, in the front window of the establishment so that when the artists perform you can also have the benefit of a quite surreal backdrop of urban nightlife being acted out behind them. People stand and stare through the glass and into the club as others alight from taxis, disgorging into the surrounding pubs, clubs and eateries. A regular convoy of council gritters, refuse trucks and number 26 buses all rattle by outside on Call Lane tonight, their occupants oblivious to life inside the Gaslight Club as one act follows another to and from the stage area.
After Gary Stewart tonight and from the other side of the Pennines comes Stefan Melbourne, a young musician with personality, poise and no little sense of purpose. A handful of good songs also helps. He is joined for all bar one of them by the demure, wraith-like figure of Chloe Leavers whose delicate, pure voice is the most perfect counterpoint to Melbourne’s deeper country-blues timbre. They prove to be a completely unknown and understated pleasure, their performance perfectly capturing the magical spirit and true meaning of these evenings. And then there was Hayley Gaftarnick, her guitar and her vocal trio showcasing material from her forthcoming debut album. Nothing in her physical demeanour quite prepares you for the richness, resonance and aching vulnerability of her voice, imbued as it is in a deep southern blues and soul not immediately associated with the north of England. It smoulders and burns as it speaks of a road well-travelled and the experiences therein. You feel honoured to have spent some time in its company.
It is perhaps far too easy to try and draw a straight line between the Canterbury scene of the late 60s and early 70s that was inhabited by such as Soft Machine, Caravan and Gong and the music of Syd Arthur. They do, after all, hail from that same city in Kent and also produce a sound which draws upon the similar influences of jazz, psychedelia and the avant-garde. But whilst Syd Arthur do regularly immerse themselves in the fractured chord changes and unfettered, improvisational hallmarks of more traditional progressive rock, they also toss some funk and some folk into their febrile mix for good measure and by not breaking the six minute-per-song barrier here tend to readily avoid the regular trap of bombast and pomposity that ensnared many such acts of that era. In keeping with every act this evening, links can easily be forged between the music of Syd Arthur and the music of the past. But make no mistake this is no end-of-the-pier nostalgia show. These are all young people who are celebrating their respective musical heritages and in so doing are not only energising it with the vibrancy of youth but also reinventing it for the present. And the Gaslight Club should be thanked and greatly applauded for giving them the opportunity to do so and for us the chance to experience it.