Fyfe Dangerfield - The Glee Club, Birmingham
Seeing as tonight's main attraction is stepping into the spotlight away from band members, it only seems right that the support act is a one man show. Villagers continues what appears to be a good month for support, with soft-spoken Irish lad Conor O'Brien taking to the Glee's stage with just an acoustic guitar and appearing to be just what his Myspace tagline describes him as: an alt-rock hobbit. It's hushed music, the kind that can fall flat as support material, but the respectful silence the venue commands means the poetic intelligence of the lyrics is felt, with O'Brien's cracked and emotive vocals free to wring every drop of Elliott Smith-esque drama over his delicate strumming. Amidst quiet but deadly songs like The Meaning of the Ritual and Home, he even drops a cover of Roy Orbison's Crying should anyone need their heart strings tugged at just a little bit more. The new face of fragile in 2010? Could be.
If indeed the Glee stage is acting as Middle Earth tonight, then Fyfe Dangerfield is some kind of gangly stringbean giant who is very happy to see us. Looking rather natty in a suit that automatically suggests a night of refined and grown-up music is on its way, his tousled mane of hair and cheeky grin are evidence that this is still the oddball frontman of Guillemots we have in front of us here. To be frank, having not heard the new solo effort Fly Yellow Moon before the gig, I had no idea what to expect.
Proceedings start off on a quiet and challenging note; we all know the reason Fyfe is touring is in support of his new album, but by opening with a barely-there track from the bonus CD that accompanies the limited edition? Brave move, bud. Although it's not the last track aired from the bonus album, the set mainly consists of songs from the main tracklisting and are played either solo or with the backing of two female string players. Herein lies the problem: although the strings are never overbearing, it seems Fyfe was unsure as to what the setup should be and so has tried to tailor the gig to suit both his own laidback material and the more eccentric layers of his band's output. So, while he plays about with loop pedals and hops from acoustic to electric to keys (and the bottle of red I'm sure he's glad he brought with him in hindsight), Fyfe never seems to settle on a cohesive sound that sees the show through.
Of course, varying it up can be a good thing but technical problems throughout fudge up attempts to deliver a smoothly rounded show. So, in between lilting acoustic ballads and the more uptempo likes of She Needs Me and When You Walk in the Room, there are uneasy moments where leads don't work and equipment dies. It helps that Fyfe, a very talented guy in not the best of situations, is likeable and chatty throughout, clearly befuddled at the unfolding chaos ("'if it helps, everything worked perfectly during soundcheck'") and obviously distressed enough that his homecoming show is flailing somewhat that he puts 110% effort in. In fact, the problems - and probably the aforementioned bottle of red - cause his performance to be infused with a frazzled, nervy energy that makes what ensues interesting, if flawed.
The new album, though it does have its Radio 2 moments, throws up some engaging performances: Livewire is effortlessly pretty, Faster Than the Setting Sun has a momentum all of its own, and So Brand New also proves memorable. Nevertheless, it takes a cover of Girls Aloud's Call the Shots, played on a distorted electric guitar, and a few choice Guillemots cuts to draw more than polite cheers from the crowd. Trains to Brazil is transformed when played with just piano and vocals midway through the set, and Redwings proves similarly lovely. Highlight of the night is the encore's ukelele rendition of Made Up Love Song #43, rewarding the "mishaps" (his word, not mine) and teething problems that have dogged the set. Although the solo material heard tonight follows a more structured A to B route, rather than the comparatively scenic journeys Guillemots' tracks often take, they perhaps haven't been given the best airing tonight and so I'll be visiting the album properly to listen again.
With his wonderfully expressive voice, enthused performance and ear for a melody, Fyfe himself is one to catch live for sure but he'll have to perfect the workings of his own stage show before he can truly fly without full backing from band members. However, given the fact that, during a particularly troublesome moment onstage, we're treated to a ten second laptop snippet of a Guillemots work-in-progress in order to fill the dead air, it seems we won't have to wait too long until we once again pick up the signal of Fyfe's original musical endeavour. Who knows? By the end of the year, his own solo show might make an upcoming Guillemots project feel unnecessary. There's still some way to go, though.