As he played his biggest headline show to date, Will proved that this is exactly where he belongs.
Will Varley has long paid his dues as a singer-songwriter and his recent album Spirit of Minnie proves just how much he’s earned his place in the spotlight, and his place on the bigger stages of this country. With songs about love, hope and protest are not only relatable, they are beautifully crafted pieces of art. At O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire those songs shine bright with support from Sean McGowan and Ida Mae.
On 11 may Sean McGowan will release his new album Son Of A Smith via XtraMile Recordings, while this is now official news, it wasn’t so much on the night of the show but Sean was clearly to excited (understandably) that he just had to share the news with us. “I have the mic and a big fucking room, so fuck it!” Greeted with cheer and applause, the crowd are just as thrilled for Sean as he is himself. It’s the happier side of things that night when it comes to Sean. “It’s gonna get happier” he repeats occasionally after songs. But the crowd doesn’t mind the heavy lyrics and melancholic tunes, it’s what McGowan does best and we love him for it. During his set he chats about his inspirations, signing with XtraMile, and mental health – “A problem shared is a problem halved, talk to your mates”.
Sean also tells us a story about his nan, who’s always been supportive of his music and receives pictures from every show. While at a show, his nan called to say she couldn’t make it and she was very sorry, all the while not realizing Sean’s show that night was all the way in Hamburg. “There’s always a glimmer of hope” he adds.
Up next are bluesy Americana duo Ida Mae from London. Formed of couple Chris and Stephanie, the two deliver a guitar-heavy set. Chris’ unique voice lays itself smoothly around the intense riffs coming off his blues guitar. If only the acoustics were tuned a little bit better – the roaring of the guitar drowns out a big part of the vocals across the whole set. With just a few tweaks here and there, as all new artists need to do, Ida Mae are sure to impress the big crowds very soon.
Story-telling folklore seems to be a forgotten art, only kept alive by the likes of icons like Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg. But thankfully we have young songwriters like Will Varley who are willing and, more importantly, able to take on those tales and traditions and bring them back to life and present them to a younger audience. And that is what Will has done on this very evening. He has taken the biggest stage he’s headlined on and owned it like a boss.
His latest record Spirit of Minnie was the first time he’s recorded with a full band, so on the night his band joins him for most of the night, though we are also treated to just Will and his guitar. And what a treat it is – take all your political anger, your love and your humor, add a whole lot of folk tunes and Will’s distinctive vocals, and you have goosebumps, cheers and an amazing show.
Not one to shy away from political commentary, Varley gets the crowd riled up as he talks about President Trump’s recent State Of The Union Address. “Here’s a song about a man who tried to enter the UK illegally in a plane with just £1 in his pocket and a mobile phone, in the undercarriage of a plane.” he says as he introduces The Man Who Fell To Earth which presents socio-political criticism on the UK’s refugee and general immigration policy. And it resonates well with his audience. And as far as protest songs go, Will writes some of the best including his Brexit hit We Don’t Believe You.
But it’s not all protest and outcry, there’s love in the room tonight, for Will and his music. As he shares the news of having recently gotten married and his wife being pregnant loud cheers and whistles erupt in collective congratulations. “This song is for Lucy” Varley notes just before kicking off Until The Grass Gets Greener.
And then we even get to vote what song is up next: will it be Talking Cat Blues or I Got This Email? After a head to head race for the crown, I Got This Email takes the lead, because after all who can’t relate to a track about those spam email offering to make you rich – what if they’re actually real?!
And while it’s at times hard to ignore the chatter by the bar, taking just a tiny bit of magic away from the stunner that this show is, most of the audience are focused dead on Varley’s impeccable performance on stage. With an epic encore with songs like King For A King and Seize The Night, his XtraMile family, in the shape of Frank Turner, Sean McGowan and Beans on Toast, joins Will on stage to celebrate his phenomenal biggest ever headline show near his old stomping grounds.
Five albums, travelling the UK (and the world), playing his songs – all his travels and experiences have shaped a songwriter who tells us of his tales so that we find ourselves within them, so that we stop and actually listen to the music we are playing on our 21st century devices.
More photos from Will’s amazing gig are on Redrospective’s site, check it out!