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Mac McCaughan – Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton, London, Wednesday 11th November 2015


Mac McCaughan finds himself in a unique position as a counter-culture figure. Having manned the front of the stage for Chapel Hill underground heroes Superchunk for more than 25 years, taken various detours into solo work as Portastatic and more recently under his own name, he’s also the unassuming guy that created Merge records alongside Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance and went on to sign not only Neutral Milk Hotel and Arcade Fire but also the likes of Spoon, Waxahatchee and Titus Andronicus.

He doesn’t necessarily need to be traipsing around Europe plugging his recently released ‘Non-Believers’ solo record, tonight arriving at the intimate Courtyard Theatre to play to a couple of hundred die-hardcore fans.

Yet, here he is, sweating it out on stage for over an hour and a half thrashing through a 24 song career-spanning set almost without pause for a gathered group that simply adore him.

That adoration comes with good reason. Whether he’s tearing out the heart-crushing ‘Chunk faves like ‘Driveway to Driveway’, new beauties like ‘Come Upstairs’ with its surreal, enticing lyric “There’s castles collapsing / Don’t you want to see it go down?”, or offering up more obscure Portastatic gold like ‘Hey Salty’ McCaughan is not only a vibrant, hypnotic presence but also allows himself to be revealed as a feisty, clever guitarist and, above all else, an evocative and masterful songwriter with a voice that speaks straight to the heart.

Allowing his charm to shimmer by appearing without the augmentation of a band set-up McCaughan is vulnerable. After a surprisingly effective singalong to newie ‘Box Batteries’ he notes “It’s so much nicer when someone other than me is singing” and when requests are called he reverts to apology and a lack of knowledge of his own material to eschew awkwardness. When he tells a tale of Yo La Tengo’s Ira telling him how to play the chorus of one of his own songs it’s done with just the right amount of self-deprecation, just the right amount of wry humour. He’s just one of the guys and he knows his limits.

Thing is, Mac McCaughan is not just A.N other singer/songwriter. He’s pretty fucking special. His forever teenage throat-pull vocals and lyrics that evoke the first moments of waking, the fading memory of perfect summers, the almost tangible, yet evaporating moments of perfection that dot and dash through life are enough to carve him a corner in anyone’s record collection.

His ability to marry these images and notions to chord sequences that actually make you tingle, melodies that make you feel like you’re being hugged by a great friend, tunes that carry you to an imaginary American childhood you’ll never quite grasp – THESE are the assets that make Mac a rare, true great.

The ragged, rampaging glory of ‘Learned To Surf’ from 2010’s ‘Majesty Shredding’ feels unstoppably joyous; the sublime, crumbling sadness of ‘Water Wings’ (tuned down to drop D “where shit gets real”) from 1993’s ‘Foolish’ is both affecting and emboldening; the ravaging thunder of ‘Crossed Wires’ a straight shot of adrenaline – all serving to create an atmosphere of wistful, timorous hope, of youthful abandon and bittersweet, rebellious heartache. This is the kinda songwriting that soars and takes you along with it, transforming these simple surrounds into something a touch more magical, suggesting a world a little more lovely.

As he closes his encore with the impossibly great ‘Song For A Clock’, intoning those inspired lyrics “I just want this frame to freeze / Those skinny little arms are a windmill / And we all tumble forward like a crooked old wheel, I know / But today be still” you feel McCaughan’s songwriting world in microcosm – the pausing of perfect moments, the preservation of momentary emotions, the presence of the past in the present.

A unique figure he is – but it’s nothing to do with his longevity, the success of his band or of his cool label – it’s more to do with the fact that this combination of voice, words and electrified guitar don’t fall together like this anywhere else. The intimate room is transported and holy fuck are we glad that Mac made the trip.

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.