Castleton: the Devil’s Arse Cave, and along with only a couple of hundred other fans last Friday night, I watched Richard Hawley play his Christmas gig. Picture the Gretsches, acoustics and lap steels being tuned by the roadie, waiting for the band like roosting swans:  they breathe and dream of flight, even when at rest. If you can see this in your mind’s eye, then you know the value of a Hawley gig. All’s alive there and full of longing, even before the first note’s played.

Once airborne,  Hawley, Shez and the rest, dapper even in the cold,  opened up a finely balanced range of material, including ‘Just Like the Rain,’ ‘Serious,’ and ‘The Sea Calls.’  My second Hawley gig, the songs now worked differently. This time, it was less a revelation, more a homecoming. Less ecstasy, more intimacy; even in a cave, even when gusts of icy rain blew past the cave’s mouth, we, we all were,  held tight.

Hawley’s so good at this; he holds an audience as elegantly, and sensitively as he holds a guitar. Never implying superiority to those who listen to him, his playing and singing style always belong to you. His voice unknots you with its rich, sweet darkness, and it’s all done so unobtrusively, like kissing the face of a sleeping lover. He doesn’t ever seem to own his material, or indeed any cover song. He doesn’t even feel the need to dominate the stage. ‘Darlin’ was on a par with ‘Devil in Disguise;’  ‘Lady Solitude’ was partnered by, danced with ‘Silent Night.’ He let Shez take the lead with guitar; his mother and aunt, heavenly when they covered the Everly Brothers ‘I Wonder If I Care As Much’, were watched intently and delightedly by Hawley as he stood behind them. Hawley was both player and spectator–all ears, and always in the music as artist and fan to a degree rare in the egobound business of rock’n’roll.

Simple, really. But so difficult to attain that kind of listening that is self-forgetful; most of us have too much noise in our heads to get to that ‘span of pure attention’. However, watching Hawley at work is an object lesson in duende: he always seems to know the way in. And we get the joy of it: for once, work and rest don’t separate; for once, the weight shifts and lightens; and for once, going to the devil is a shortcut to a wintry piece of paradise. ‘Silent Night’ releasing the dead souls in hell.

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In The New Theatre Oxford, a run-down art-deco venue with a strange subterrannean bar and eccentric plumbing, I finally saw the light. Like all good conversion experiences, this one wasn’t expected, but was resisted. And when it came it engulfed me: we’re talking annihilation, bliss, negative capability, no ‘me-ness’ whatsoever. One of those.

The cause of this little epiphany? Richard Hawley, a geetarrman with a terribly un-rock’n’roll name,  on tour with his band, and supported by a rather impressive neo-rockabilly combo, Vincent Vincent and the Villains. For the uninitiated, Hawley has managed to pass most of his professional life safely out of the limelight. Formerly a guitarist with the Longpigs and Pulp, Hawley is a man who who failed an audition with Morrissey because his voice was too good and who was overlooked for a Mercury due to the presence on the shortlist of the talented and more noisy and skilfully self-promoting Arctic Monkeys. Hawley, it seems, is a past master at the ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ syndrome. And in today’s climate of rabid, narcissistic capitalism, where only the very young seem to matter, and where success had better come instantly or it can’t be called success at all, Hawley seems especially ‘out of time.’ He’s a slow burn kind of artist, a rockabilly throwback, a northern Elvis–and someone who describes himself on his website as a ‘speccy twat.’  Not the kind of profile that could lend itself to selling mobile phones or ‘designing’ perfume.

I suppose that all this low-key stuff hadn’t made me feel over-excited about Hawley himself. The beginning of our relationship wasn’t especially promising. A friend from work had given me a CD copy of ‘Coles Corner’ as a Christmas present in December 06.  As I’d never heard of Hawley, the CD languished over that festive season in the glove-box of my car, until the time came to do a post-Christmas pilgrimage to the in-laws, and I found myself playing the record whilst driving across the Norfolk fens. My other half wasn’t overly impressed: ‘he’s a bit of a crooner,’ remarked J, in a  tactful expression of mild disapprobation. I could see his point, and yet, even on that first listen I felt that a) crooning wasn’t a bad thing (you’re reading the blog of someone who grew up listening to Sinatra, Crosby, Bennett and their ilk) and b) those melodies! right from the outset they gave me that feeling along my breastbone, that sweet hit of pain…I began to suspect the presence of some serious duende right away. Elation, longing, emptiness. Oh yes.

But it still wasn’t love-yet. For me to fall in love with an artist (and, by the way, if you aren’t totally, madly besotted with the singers and musicians you listen to, what on earth is the bloody point?) I have to test their records to destruction. My car doesn’t possess a CD changer or an MP3 socket, and therefore you can only play one CD at a time. So I have evolved a method of listening to music whereby I play the same CD over and over again when I’m alone in the car, travelling to and from work. It’s a kind of intensive listening not encouraged in ipod culture, but one which has several advantages. If the record’s ok but not a Great record with a capital G, you will tire of it after about 3 listens. But if it is a Great, it will withstand repeated scrutiny: you become greedy for it, and it plays itself in your mind even when it’s not playing. The music possesses you, and the relationship becomes erotic, amorous. The relationship between you and it mutates from the cerebral to the physical. The music is, to steal from Keats, ‘proved upon the pulses.’ Over time, ‘Coles Corner’ crossed this rubicon.

And yet, and yet…There was still something missing. I bought tickets to see Hawley last September, only to find the gig was cancelled and postponed. But I wasn’t gutted as I might have been if this had been, say, a postponed trip to see Nick Cave. Something within me remained to be convinced that he deserved to be up there with Cave in my personal pantheon of musicians. It only became clear why I’d had these reservations (and why they were misplaced) when I arrived at the gig itself and heard Hawley play.

The first bit of excitement came with the choice of supporting band. Vincent Vincent were exciting, literate and incredibly sharp. Quite often when you go to gigs, the support act is some kind of disconnected distraction from the main event. Not here. Vincent Vincent weren’t Hawley identikits, but acted as well-chosen foils to Hawley himself. ‘Hawley likes these guys a lot,’ I found myself thinking. And so when the quiffed and shiny-suited ‘speccy’ one arrived on stage, it felt like a very natural progression, as natural as I imagine it would have felt to see one of those 1950s touring shows featuring Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis all on the same bill.  Except that this wasn’t a show coming out of the Deep South, but the Deep North.

As soon as Hawley opened his mouth to speak I felt immediately at home. Don’t forget that we were sitting in a theatre in Oxford, heartland of England’s establishment, and here were these magnificent Sheffield tones, coupled with the comic timing of a skilled club comedian. OK, so he’s from the wrong side of the Pennines (I’m from Bolton, originally) but I loved him for suddenly taking away the sense of exile I always feel at living in the south. Right from the outset, when he rallied us with the phrase ‘Let’s ballad,’ that draughty, damp old theatre seemed as intimate as Hawley’s front room, so much so that I wanted to have a chat with him between songs. When he apologized for one song, ‘Lady Solitude’, worrying that it might be ‘crap’, I felt I could almost get up out of my seat, walk onto the stage and convince him just how groundless his fears were.

‘Lady Solitude’ was, in fact, the standout moment of the entire gig. It came about half way through, and by the time he played it I felt I had slipped away from myself almost completely. He had begun his set with ‘Valentine,’ and from the first notes, I realised why I’d had a problem with Hawley up until that moment: on record, he had sounded almost too perfect, as if he suffered from that musical disease endemic in the digital age: overproduction. But then I understood: he sounds flawless because that’s the kind of beauty he’s naturally capable of releasing from both voice and guitar. His is not dry, airbrushed studio perfection, you understand, but a kind of loving concentration on the work in hand.

And what work it was! All of it made 500% more sense when played live. The guitar sounds he produced from the extraordinarily lovely-looking instruments he used on stage had ‘conjured soul from body. ‘ Or was it his voice that did this? Who can tell? His voice and whichever guitar he used were a continuum, with the body of the man bridging the two. I was reminded of Benedick’s comment in Much Ado about Nothing:

BENEDICK: Now, divine air! now is his soul ravished! Is it
not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out
of men’s bodies?

Benedick’s talking about the lute+voice effect here, but nevertheless, the comparison still stands for guitar+voice: the experience of being taken by a song, an experience as ancient as song itself, holy and erotic…and this is how I was feeling before he began to play ‘Lady Solitude.’ A few bars in, however, and I was completely gone: silent tears spilled down my face, so many I didn’t bother to try and dry them. This for me is the ultimate gift that any artist of whatever genre can deliver. Very, very few singers have had this effect on me. It’s a response that’s spontaneous, rare and precious, and amounts to a kind of knowledge about the world. As Nick Cave would put it, that knowledge is saudade, the sadness that lives ‘deep down things’ and which only the truly great can access or retrieve in the form of duende, deep song.

So this, really, is a call to arms. For all those that don’t know Hawley, get hold of Lady’s Bridge or Coles Corner and don’t delay. Your life should not be without music like this.  But don’t expect anything flash. This is the hard part: most of what we tend to consider good these days is flash, jump-cut, neon. Instead, give it time, listen intensively. That’s what this ballad thing is all about. Soul. The long haul. Ravishment. History.