Richard James / Gareth Bonello @ Telford’s Warehouse, Chester –
(review by adam walton for bbc website)
Gareth Bonello is natural music. That’s not great English, but a perfect summation of the man. In The Wire (“the Greatest TV Show Ever Made”™ – The Guardian reviews section) those with a natural inclination to protect and serve their districts are called ‘natural police’. Gareth has a natural inclination to bewitch and move his audience. He is ‘natural music’. Grammar and syntax can go jump themselves upside the river.

As subtly wondrous as his guitar playing is, it’s always subservient to the song, and – in particular – his voice. Gareth has a voice like a broken heart. It’s stained with resignation, eroded by cruel winds, challenging gravity like those unfathomable rock edifices in Monument Valley. It’s one of the great Welsh voices. But it’s a storyteller’s voice rather than a singer’s voice. And all the better for that.

The obvious, internationally-recognised reference points for his music – Nick Drake, John Martyn, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – are somewhat misleading because this is a music steeped in Wales. It’s mysterious with early morning mist obscuring the valley’s sides; burnished by the sunrise trying to break through.

There is a timeless gravitas that comes from Gareth’s knowledge of the history of song in Wales. There are words and musical phrases that resonate, regardless of their age. There are no awkward concessions to contemporaneity, no baubles of modernism. Gareth is like a dry stone waller, or a traditional carpenter, there is an elemental, timeless truth to his work that makes it especially resonant and valuable in our age of the temporary, shallow and ephemeral.

His opening song Aubade is about as close as I’ve ever heard to my soul’s harmonic frequency. He plays it, and it vibrates tears, yearning and regret out of every pore. Oh Lord, I love great music – simultaneously hurting and healing in the same cadence.

Richard James is tonight’s headliner. “I’m going to be playing some songs from an album that was released two weeks ago, and some other songs that haven’t been released yet, with Gareth Bonello and Andy Fung. A lot of these songs are quite, erm, well – I dunno – without being too articulate about it, erm, miserable… so, you’re in for a treat! It’s about the misery of the heart. I think they’re joyous as well…”

And so begins one of the most magical hours of music I have ever witnessed. The sound is so quiet and delicate that the audience bend, as one, closer to the stage, like sunflower heads craning towards a source of light and life.

Richard James mightn’t feel articulate speaking about his music but there are few as musically articulate. And – like many of the greatest artists – he works his spells within a deliberately self-limited range. Gorky’s – his former band – were a supernova of creative thought, more ideas in single songs than some artists manage in entire lifespans. There were bells, whistles, school orchestras, xylophones, sword mangels and recorders: an entire rainbow of wildly enthusiastic sounds.

Wonder and possibility radiated from every note. It’s somewhat amazing to consider that we had them and Super Furry Animals at the same time. A Facebook friend opined recently that music’s golden age ended in 1979, and that nothing of equable worth had happened since; well, she can’t have been listening to Gorky’s or the Furries from 1996 until the middle of the last decade, because that’s as high a watermark as any.

Hmmm. Gorky’s is Richard’s past. He’s been making superlative solo albums for the best part of a decade. But his evolution, from exuberant school kid set free in a sweet shop of the imagination, to an artist of great capability and restraint, who wields less with an emotive power that is the match of the more, more, more thrills of his youth, is a fascinating one.

So we have two guitars, three voices, one bongo (or some such, sorry Andy!), an occasional harmonica, and sometime unique use of a pair of sunglasses/beerglass, in conjunction with the unnamed drum. But within that apparently limited range, we get a panoramic tour of the infinite vistas of the heart.

I’ve rarely seen an audience as attentive as this most excellent of audiences is. I swear, on occasion the music is as hushed as whispers on a breeze, but no one makes a sound. No one dares breathe. The sound of my camera’s shutter is louder than the drum. Drawing us all more and more into the music’s irresistible undertow.

When Richard sings his “most miserable” song (which may be called Down To My Heart, but there are fleas with a better memory for names than me) I think we could all – to a man and a woman – die in that eternal moment – melancholic and content. I think this music, this sensation, is priceless because it reminds us all that we’re not alone. The high fallutin’ call it pathos, or bathos – whatever the correct terminology is – it’s a musketeer of hope and empathy. The guitars are subtle shimmers, the unnamed drum a heartbeat, the voice an irresistible glow. Music this nakedly human is rare. If you want a signpost, think Neil Young’s Harvest.

Then we’re in the midst of a 10 minute raga, sucking our souls to metaphysical places of hallucinatory wonder. Shamanistic and about as good as human artistic endeavour can get. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m exaggerating. This was the Sistine Chapel in acoustic guitar; Monet in minor thirds; a series of plaintive, folk sonnets that Shakespeare would have stood to applaud.

My gauchely-lobbed hyperbole is in inverse proportion to how subtly exquisite this was. All of it. Thank you Richard. Thank you Gareth. Thank you Andy. Thank you ears. Thank you heart.