Tom McRae - The Slade Rooms, Wolverhampton
For every success story, the Mercury Music Prize has also thrown up a critically lauded artist or band deemed fit to win the award but cursed to do little else beyond that - remember Speech Debelle? If this has happened of winners, then what of the poor, humble nominees? Back in 2001, Suffolk singer/songwriter Tom McRae made the shortlist with his self-titled debut LP, a record which would become a blueprint for an ensuing discography that dwells in the dark places of love lost, discarded and unrequited. Despite building up a loyal following (a fair few who are present - and vocal about it - in tonight's seated crowd) and touring to the same effect in the States, McRae's ten-plus years in the industry have amounted to cult status at best. Based on the night's performance in Wolverhampton, that's a real shame.
McRae singlehandedly ensures the show is a triumph. It is a solo show in the truest sense, with McRae shunning backing players in what is already an intimate venue. There are moments of unforeseen crowd participation, McRae imbuing a sense of fun into his most maudlin moments with handclaps and whistling, but for the most part it is McRae alone with guitar (and, on 'Ship of Blue and Green', a quick switch to piano) and his searing voice, which is a weapon of clarity in a live setting much more than on record. Pleasingly, McRae is also self-aware enough to acknowledge his circumstances, turning the in-between-songs sections of the set into something of an acerbic comedy act, targeting his own "depressing" music with self-deprecating humour and telling the crowd, chuckling, that most of their obituaries will read "they turned the gun on themselves". Initially, it's an approach that catches off guard but it helps to create a comfortable atmosphere in which the songs, here dressed down in their barest form, can really breathe and be enjoyed by the attentive (hopefully non-suicidal) crowd.
Although his most recent album From the Lowlands has been available since October last year, McRae is careful to build a setlist that will please the diehard faithful too, even changing tack to accept a shouted-out request for 'My Vampire Heart' midway through - it's a highlight too, so thanks to that lady whomever she may be. The new songs are great, showcasing McRae's strength for a dramatic torch song but also an underlying dry humour (that will be 'Fuck You, Prometheus' then) and a few choice moments from the debut record sound as fresh now as they did a decade ago. 'Karaoke Soul' deserves a special mention, not just for McRae transforming the song's dense orchestrations into a solo guitar thrashing, but also for the context McRae gives - the song is not about X Factor karaoke as assumed at the time, but Tony Blair's failings as prime minister, an irony not lost on the day of Thatcher's funeral (I won't repeat the controversial exchanges between McRae and crowd). Before performing 'End of the World News', McRae laments the fact that his chance at stadium-sized rock stardom has passed him by; two minutes into the song, an impromptu play of Springsteen's 'Because the Night' adds to the unpredicted fun factor of the night, with the devoted doing their best to make the man feel like Brucie by throwing hands in the air and giving good 'whoop!'
By the time the encore rolls round though, McRae packs away the funnies and delivers a heartfelt thank you to the loyal followers present. 'All That's Gone' has drunken young lovers slow-dancing in the aisles, happily suggesting that (against the odds) McRae's music is somehow managing to reach new listeners, while finale 'Lord, How Long' is presented as a song to leave us with a "warm, happy glow - here's another song about war." Despite the fraught nature of the music, the gig never feels like a battle - which in itself is something, considering this music is too good to have been so overlooked.
Setlist: Lately's All I Know/ Nothing on the Dry Land / For the Restless / Won't Lie / My Vampire Heart / Ship of Blue and Green / Karaoke Soul / Belly of a Whale / End of the World News (Dose Me Up) / Fuck You, Prometheus / A & B Song / Sunset Boulevard / One Mississippi // All That's Gone / Lord, How Long