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Dakota Suite – Seven Arts Centre, Leeds, 13th March 2014

Last year Chris Hooson stood on this very stage, on that very same spot and told a full house that he was through with Leeds. The man who was, is and you know fine well always will be the central element of and principal creative force behind the musical project that is Dakota Suite assured us that it was to be his and their final appearance in his now home city. Ordinarily a man of great absolutes, it then comes as a complete surprise to find him back in the Seven Arts Centre tonight. Like Frank Sinatra before him, Hooson has made a complete volte-face on his earlier decision to retire from active duty and the reason for this emergence from his self-imposed performance exile is all in the good name of a most worthwhile cause.

Advertised as A Little Dust On The Eyes; An Evening Of Words and Music, tonight is a benefit show with all proceeds from it going to the 2014 Soroptimist International of Leeds Literary Prize for unpublished fiction by Black and Asian women resident in the UK. Sandwiched between readings from Jane Steele, Katy Massey, Adam Lowe and Jamal Gerald and the night’s headliners, Northern cult band Sentimentalists, is Dakota Suite.

Despite playing what is by necessity of the evening’s schedule a much truncated set, watching and listening to004a Chris Hooson and Dakota Suite perform is still not what can be described as being a comfortable experience. A deeply complex and troubled individual, Hooson’s more recent travails have left him looking both diminished and fragile, factors which merely add to the vulnerability and anguish that haunt his music. For those in the audience neither familiar with him nor his work, his between-song explanations for his view of the world and the nature of his closest personal relationship may make them feel as if they have stepped uninvited into the unrelenting vortex of some stranger’s greatest emotional turmoil.

Such is the feelings of discomfort that a Dakota Suite show can generate, there must be a strong desire for some people to just turn and run. A number do in fact head for the sanctuary of the bar and others, possibly in seeking to assuage their own delicate sensitivities, can later be heard asking if it was all some sort of artifice on Hooson’s part. Anyone who has had more than a passing acquaintance with him or his music will surely tell you that the answer to this question is a most unequivocal no. This is unquestionably real.

Entering what is now the sixteenth year of a prolific and most estimable recording career and ahead of what will be the release in June of Dakota Suite’s next album, There Is Calm To Be Done, Hooson plays two songs from it. Like many others in the Dakota Suite canon, ‘This Is My Way Of Saying That I’m Sorry’ outlines Hooson’s perceived failings, a further apology for any wrongs he has done and any hurt he has caused.  The other, though, ‘In The Stillness Of This Night’, is a much more conventional love song, the tenderness of which would not have been entirely out of place on Tom WaitsClosing Time.

Despite being shorn of David Buxton’s guitar before the evening has even begun, the Dakota Suite sound tonight is swelled by the languid bass of Chris Swindell, the classical piano of Daniel Bath and the mighty John Shephard, described by Hooson with no hint of hyperbole on his part as the third greatest drummer of all time behind Elvin Jones and Art Blakey. Together they provide a warm and sympathetic accompaniment to Hooson’s torrid self-flagellation and deeply emotional catharsis. It only remains to be seen if he will return to this particular shore again.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.