Sweet Baboo – The Fulford Arms, York, 7th February 2016

Returning to this North Yorkshire city for the third time in little over a year, these Sweet Baboo shows in York just seem to get better and better. Appearing as part of a joint collaboration with The Pictish Trail in The Basement of the City Screen cinema some 14 months ago, Stephen Black – the man who is Sweet Baboo – was great. Last September in this very venue, backed by a band, he was great. Now here he is again and he is even greater still.

Last time he was in the Fulford Arms, Stephen Black was promoting Sweet Baboo’s fourth album the really rather marvellous The Boombox Ballads. This time, he and his four impeccable musical cohorts – guitarist Charles Watson, Huw Evans (H. Hawkline) and Avvon Chambers on their respective bass guitar and drums, plus The Boombox Ballad’s arranger-in-chief Paul Jones on keys – Black is here in support of his new EP Dennis.

But it is to his third long player Ships and its opening track ‘If I Died…’ that Stephen Black first goes tonight. It is a song that contains all of those essential Sweet Baboo characteristics. It possesses the purest of melodies; it has heart, humour, and humility seen through an almost child-like view of the world. And it reflects Black’s tremendous ability to write the most killer of pop tunes.

Having just played ‘We Used To Call Him Dennis’ from his new EP – a typically wry observation by Black on the name that his son nearly had – he tells us that he “will stop chatting and rattle through the songs, seeing as it’s a Sunday.” It is a promise he struggles to keep, but that matters little as part of this North Walian man’s tremendous charm is his sharp wit and acute sense of comedic timing.

A rather funky, supper-club jazz interlude fails quite miserably to seamlessly segue into ‘You Are Gentle’. It is compounded even further by Black then making a complete pig’s ear of the song’s words, but it is something that the band and audience just laugh right off. It is all part of the sheer delight that is a Sweet Baboo show.

Sweet Baboo then treat us to ‘Do The Buzzard’ from the Dennis EP. Black explains that it is a song all about 60’s dance crazes and in its infectious melody he has tapped right into that decade’s glorious pop insouciance. He then introduces his country song, ‘Walking In The Rain’, complete with some lovely lap-steel guitar courtesy of Watson.

And then as if to further illustrate his outrageous versatility Stephen Black indulges in “a 12 and a half minute prog-rock epic”, stretching ‘You Got Me Timekeeping’ out to almost twice its studio length courtesy of a proto-thrash wig out in the middle passage that would have surely passed muster with Van der Graaf Generator in their overblown pomp.

The physical layout of the Fulford Arms does not lend itself easily to an artist going off stage and then returning for an encore so Stephen Black just dispenses with that tradition. He finishes the set with what would have been its last song – a deeply moving and entirely fitting ‘Over and Out’ – before striking up a solo and quite beautiful version of ‘You Are The Best Beach I Know’.

There is no place for ‘Let’s Go Swimming Wild’ tonight; Stephen Black tells me later that it has been jettisoned from this tour’s setlist to not only keep the song fresh but also preserve his voice. Instead, we get a cover. ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’. It may well have been played for the first time last night in Sheffield but it is incredible, with the band sounding just like The Band. And with such power and influence Sweet Baboo sends us home in search of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline so that we may continue to keep the memory of this very special evening alive.

Photo credit: Simon Godley.

More photos from this show can be found here

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