My evening began well, with a seat in the Donald Gordon Theatre at the Welsh Millennium Centre. I remember visiting ‘Cardiff docks’ as a child, when there was little more than water and Techniquest to report, so this building always feels a bit miraculous. This theatre in particular is very soothing and beautiful, all smooth, curving wood and glowing lights. Tonight, I’d be watching Passenger’s sold out performance, with Stu Larsen in support, as part of 2018’s Festival of Voice. Illness made me miss a bunch of other acts, so dosed with meds, I was ready to be healed by my first festival experience.
As he walked onto the darkened stage, my attention was stolen by Stu Larsen’s long blonde dreads and flame red beard, topped by a flat cap. His opening track ‘I Will Be Happy and Hopefully You Will Be Too’, was from 2017 album Resolute,, and began: “I want a house by the country / I want a house by the sea / It doesn’t really matter where I live / As long as you’re with me. The song moved on to: I wanna visit South America / And maybe Africa too / It doesn’t really bother me where I go / As long as I’m with you.”
His delivery was warm, full of affection, with spot on harmonies and fantastic guitar skills – and he smoothly combined playing and vocals as a result of, no doubt, thousands of hours of practice in the bag. But I wanted more truth, more deep digging beyond a polished performance. I felt that if a rhyme could be predicted in the first line, it was coming in the second. Although an Australian native, I felt he wavered into the territory of adopting a singing accent that was a bit Mumford and Sons bordering on cockney. And if Stu had been to a place in the world, he was going to mention it. San Francisco, Dublin, Colorado, Chicago… as man who left the comforts of home to make music and tour, he’s an owner of an interesting life, yet I felt we didn’t get any true insights into this through the lyrics he shared. His subjects were love, lost love, finding a great guitar, going home to a small town: “I’m going back to Bowenville / Where everyone knows your name / I’m going back to Bowenville / Where everything stays the same.”
Stu Larsen came across as an accomplished free spirited puppy, ticking off topic checkboxes via inexplicit lines. I’d love to hear more of the self he let us glimpse in his final track chorus, and the ‘Hallelujah’ cover he inserted into ‘Ferry to Dublin.’ Here he exhibited something loose, uneven, freer, which was captivating. My tastes would love to see his performance morph beyond safe, and to hear his skills capture something more personal.
In Passenger, I expected an Americana singer songwriter with a guitar, bleeding their feelings onto the stage with ragged tour tired, and world-weary vocals. Just my cup of tea / bourbon. About eight years ago I wrote an article about beards, and how their existence on a face was indication to me of North American indie folk music making – see Ben Bridwell and Justin Vernon in the early 2010s. I saw Mike Rosenberg’s poster (he’s the man behind Passenger) complete with his impressive beard, briefly listened on Spotify, and it seemed he might prove my theory.
Little did I know, Passenger is from Brighton, not the Oregon woods, and he’s a YouTube marvel. His 2012 hit ‘Let Her Go’ notched up 1.3 billion hits. The track was awarded an Ivor Novello, topped charts in 20 countries, and his 2017 album The Boy Who Cried Wolf was a direct to fan album release, getting a top 5 in the UK album chart. While I had not known all of this, his fans totally did, and they’d expectantly filled the venue.
In every direction, my gaze was met with a radiant face, beaming at the stage. Passenger’s fans loved him. They knew the words to his songs and applauded his between-song chat. The auditorium flickered with tens of phone screens at all times, filming and photographing – which I guess correlates with an audience whose fandom has partially grown through online videos. And Michael Rosenberg has a confident stage presence. He shared a tour tale from Minneapolis, where he’d been shopping for cigarettes but instead met a man dying of lung cancer, who was riding a motorcycle across the US for one last adventure and to see his family. “For the first time, I really got it,” Michael said. I waited for a revelation about the true meaning of life and death. “Cigarettes fuck you up.”
Much of my feeling about Stu Larsen also applies here. Michael Rosenberg is hugely skilled. He brilliantly plays his guitar, sings, sometimes all while stamping a drum beat out on the floor, making it look easy when its impossible for most mere mortals like me. He created a clever cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, altering its structure.
Yet – one of the songs in the set this night was ‘I Hate,’ which seemed to incorporate all middle of the road complaints possible. Call me cynical, but is this writing to cast a net of appeal and fish for YouTube clicks? “Well I hate them fussy eaters, you cook them fajitas/ They only eat pizza and chips / I hate stepping outside, for a smoke and some guy / Coughs, like your lungs are his / And I hate queuing up, for festival toilets / Especially when you need to shit”.
I found this gig to be mostly music by numbers, singing lyrics that seem to be derivative and pleasing, rather than delving into who Michael Rosenberg really is. More rugged, please! More revealing of your soul! More blood on the stage! But this is just one person’s taste. There were a lot of thrilled fans in the WMC who would say both Passenger and Stu Larsen are doing things just right as they are. And as usual when in this venue, I felt grateful to be in surroundings that are good for the soul, and witnessing musical talent, even if it’s not quite my thing.