Home loving is surely killing live music. Quite why only about thirty people turned up for this show absolutely beggars belief, though lethargy on a Monday evening has got to be one of the reasons behind the poor turn out. But by lying on their sofas for the night and in all likelihood catching up on a Weatherfield from which Messrs Webster and Barlow have now been forcibly removed, they missed out on what was undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best gig of this year.
One of only two full band shows scheduled to take place (the other having been the previous night in Newcastle’s equally intimate Cluny 2), this was an extremely rare opportunity to catch Chris Rollen performing as Pea Sea. The event was billed as a celebration for the forthcoming release of The Debatable Land, the project’s first album proper and as on the album, which was recorded at the new Field Music studio in Sunderland, Rollen is joined here by the brothers Brewis on drums, keyboards and guitar and a tall unassuming bloke with a beard and a pea green woolly hat playing bass.
Earlier in the evening the quartet had entered the City Screen building in York virtually unnoticed, looking for all the world like four regular blokes who were just about to catch the last showing of The Great Gatsby. Instead they ventured downstairs into The Basement where they sat and drank tea and caught first Missing Kids and then The Illness playing their support slots, the latter affording Rollen his first opportunity of the evening to step behind the microphone as he joined them on stage for one song. In his pink shirt, grey slacks and the most self-effacing of presences you felt he would have been more at home at the local Home Base than actually performing here tonight.
But looks, as we know, can be deceiving and any diffidence both he and his three Pea Sea cohorts may have conveyed through their modest appearance was quickly blown away. The opening “Kirtle Water”, a beautiful country-folk paean to the river that runs by Rollen’s home town of Gretna but a song in which he initially struggled to measure his vocal range, was not an entirely accurate barometer of what was to follow. As he grew in confidence and steadily got into his stride, the wider scope of his talent and the range of his music began to emerge. It positively blossomed across the ensuing dozen songs, a personal travelogue of memories, some of which were old and borrowed, others blue, wherein lives and loves intertwine. With the almost telepathic support of Peter and David Brewis he stitched these words across a rich musical tapestry spanning all the way from the ghost of Ivor Cutler to the mortal presence of Richard Thompson.
If I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight were to be reconfigured for release again tomorrow then there would surely be a place on it for “Mixing Up The Cordite”, where Peter Brewis’s jagged guitar meshed perfectly with the impeccable symmetry of his brother’s drums. “Rise Above Them” captured Rollen’s vulnerability both in his words and voice, the eloquent beauty of its simple melody their perfect counterpoint. And John Cale would surely have been most proud of Rollen’s interpretation of his very own “Charlemagne”, which stayed unerringly true to the song’s original sentiments. “Many times, many tried; simple stories are the best, keep in mind the wishful kind, don’t wanna be like the rest”
And Chris Rollen is not like the rest. Whatever a musician should look like, he patently does not. And whilst he may have been touched by a myriad of influences from David Byrne to Will Oldham he does not sound like all the rest. Like the title of the forthcoming album, he operates in an area that lies somewhere in between, but one that occupies its very own space. To experience his songs is to open a dusty old treasure chest of personal recollections and allow them to come to life. But it is perhaps on one of the three songs that he covers tonight, Simon Joyner’s “When She Drops Her Veil”, that the sheer effortless beauty of the vehicle that is Pea Sea is at its finest. It brings to a close a quite perfect evening during which the incredulity of so few people being here is consumed by the euphoria that only experiencing such exquisite music in an intimate live setting can truly bring.
Pea Sea released The Debatable Land on Sea Records on 20th May 2013