mon 24/06/2024

Malcolm Middleton, Hanbury Club, Brighton | reviews, news & interviews

Malcolm Middleton, Hanbury Club, Brighton

Malcolm Middleton, Hanbury Club, Brighton

Scottish miserablist songwriter on pithy solo acoustic form

Malcolm Middleton, pondering in the darkness

"Welcome to the second night of my depressing acoustic tour," said Malcolm Middleton by way of introducing his set. The statement plays on his well-established reputation for miserabilism. Later on he asked the audience, "Enjoying yourselves?" to which a smattering of "yeahs" could be heard. "Then I'm not doing my job properly," deadpanned Middleton.

The Glaswegian singer-songwriter, who was one half of boozy alt-folk rabble-rousers Arab Strap until 2006, sat alone in a spotlight, his sole instrument an acoustic guitar, and continually dropped downbeat comments, but his pithy songs of everyday existentialism held his audience rapt.

Initially the evening didn't look promising although the Hanbury Club itself is wonderful. Built in 1892 as a mausoleum for Sir Albert Sassoon, it has a lovely domed roof illustrated with images of Victorian orientalism, and the walls are decorated with art deco mirrors set against exotic wallpaper. Unfortunately, upon my arrival the ambience was everything I detest about acoustic nights. The support band, a three piece called Curly Hair, were the very definition of twee.

For their final number the cutesy front-woman stood atop a chair in the audience and played the xylophone while the guitarist (barefoot, wearing a tank top, Harry Palmer glasses and a brown shirt) tried to whip up a crowd singalong to their saccharine unplugged indie chirpiness. All around, prematurely middle-aged couples wearing jumpers, scarves and corduroy, beards and bobs, lounged on sofas sipping red wine, self-consciously tapping their feet in wan bourgeois imitation of a good time hoedown.

Middleton changed the mood. Where the phrase "acoustic singer-songwriter" once conjured up the likes of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, in recent years it's come to define a tedious deluge of men with acoustic guitars serenading us with homogenous blandness, drab troubadours such as James Blunt, David Gray, Newton Faulkner, James Morrison, and on and on, their songs a catastrophic spume of tepid generalisations and lovelorn clichés.

Middleton, however, comes from a different school. Over five albums he has laid out a world view rooted in the grit and mundanity of everyday life, far closer to the literature of Raymond Carver or Alan Warner than the turgid platitudes of Paolo Nutini.

Appropriately, considering the gales and storms outside on Brighton seafront, he began with "Cheer Down", the chorus of which goes: "If things don't get any better/ And I don't mean this fucking weather/ Pretty soon I'm gonna get leathered". He sang with his eyes closed and didn't look directly at his audience for most of the gig. In fact he seemed supremely uncomfortable, although it's unclear whether this is partly his stage act since the resulting dynamic tension makes him a mesmerising performer. He passionately sang the song "Break My Heart", for instance, the abiding theme of which is that he'd "rather be fulfilled than sing these shit songs". It's not hooligan attitude, he sounds desperate for love and redemption.

His demeanour is perhaps best summed up by his remark that he'd "accidentally" read on Bruce Springsteen's blog that "If you're aware you're on stage, you're not doing it right." Middleton paused and said in a voice so quiet the microphone could hardly pick it up, "One of us is wrong." This he followed with, "Fuck him," before plunging on through bedsitter-gloom classics such as "Four Cigarettes", the superb "Box And Knife" from his latest album Waxing Gibbous and the astoundingly bleak "Crappo The Clown" ("I can destroy hope," the song claims at one point), yet it was all spiked entertainingly with commonplace detail and pitch black humour redolent of Irvine Welsh.

Middleton kept looking at his watch to see how much longer he should play. He adhered to no set list and occasionally asked the audience to make requests. It's a tribute to his devoted cult following that the song titles shouted back at him were multifarious. He eventually announced that the next three songs should be regarded as his encore. He'd played for an hour and a half, this ordinary-looking chap with thinning red hair, clad in a black shirt and jeans, but the time had flown by and he could have held our attention a lot longer.

He finished with his usual closer, "The Devil And The Angel" from his debut album, a song that's morose, foul-mouthed and very funny. Then he mumbled his thanks, made a few half-hearted comments about the merchandise stall, and wandered off through the crowd. He may be one of Britain's great unsung contemporary songwriters, but he'd rather there wasn't a fuss about it.

Malcolm Middleton performs "Crappo the Clown":

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