He’s back. After years of lying dormant as both a songwriter and live performer, Ben Watt is back. Towards the end of a quite exquisite ninety minute set he tells us that he would much rather play 12 new songs to 200 people than a lot of old stuff to 2000. In saying this he was merely underlining what he had indicated earlier; he would not be performing any material from his work with Tracey Thorn, a quietly downplayed and entirely self-effacing reference to their time together as Everything But the Girl – a highly successful musical unit that has now been inactive since the start of the new millennium – and instead, Watt went on, he would focus upon the songs he has written for his new album plus a few tunes from his much earlier solo career.
The catalyst for this as yet untitled new album – scheduled for release in the spring – was a memoir Ben Watt has recently written about his mother and father. In ‘Romany and Tom’ he reflects upon his parents’ lives during those post-war years, his own childhood memories, growing up and journeys taken. But the songs that emerged from this process are far from being wistful exercises in autumnal nostalgia; in keeping with his decision not to trawl through the ETBG back catalogue they are revealed as bold, almost defiant assertions upon strong family ties and lives that have been lived.
As was the case on the new record, Watt is joined on this short UK tour by another man who has had a previous musical incarnation located within a much bigger and brighter firmament. But also like Watt, Bernard Butler is someone who eschews fame and stardom. Both men impress as being hugely modest individuals for whom the key is the special artistry of making music. And make music they do.
An early highlight is ‘Golden Ratio’, a really quite beautifully disconnected stroll across a bridge that links late 1960’s British folk to jazz and blues and in so doing brings to mind the fuzzy warmth of John Martyn’s transitional album Bless The Weather. Like the ensuing ’The Gun’ and ‘Spring’ (with an opening line appropriated from the great jazz pianist Bill Evans) ‘Golden Ratio’ is destined for the forthcoming album and with it the song carries great expectation and the incredible lyrical understatement that is Butler’s guitar.
Butler temporarily departs to leave Watt alone with ‘Walter and John’ and ‘A Girl In Winter’ and a whole bunch of magical memories of Rough Trade in the early ‘80s and meeting as a 19 year old one Robert Wyatt who was to add fluid piano and vocal lines to what would become Watt’s début EP ‘Summer Into Winter’. More than thirty years on these are songs that still stand proud and tall.
‘North Marine Drive’, the title track from his 1983 début solo album, makes up the trio of Watt’s earlier songs performed here tonight. Sandwiched between ‘Matthew Arnold’s Field’ and the gorgeously atmospheric ‘The Levels’ (complemented as it is by the wonderful expanse of Butler’s spatial, desert slide) it is barely possible to determine that three decades of life and experience separates them.
Two richly deserved encores – the country-folk of ‘Young Man’s Game’ and ‘Old Flame’, a song that did not quite make the new record’s final cut, yet through its repeated playing this has become a decision Watt has begun to question – bring the curtain down on what was a most perfect of evenings. It was an evening during which two kindred spirits were able to break free from any encumbrance their respective pasts may have held and in having done so they came together to create some wonderfully inspired and engaging music.