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The Rock was unusually quiet tonight when I arrived at the popular South Yorkshire venue. I got there slightly earlier just as club organiser Rob Shaw was putting the finishing touches to the layout of the stage, checking the PA and making sure everything was in place, something Rob's been doing most Friday afternoons for the last 35 years, whilst his wife Janet prepared the welcoming desk out in the foyer. Michael Chapman was on his way, battling the usual Friday night traffic presumably. The dark nights seem to have crept up on us lately and there was a sense of oncoming winter in the air. 'I wonder how many people will turn up tonight' I asked. It was a rhetorical question, which required no response, but I sensed that the legendary musicians of my youth don't automatically sell out clubs like they used to. I wasn't expecting to be trampled in a stampede any time soon. Shortly afterwards, Michael arrived through the side entrance, fully equipped with worn-in baseball hat, leather jacket, jeans, cowboy boots, two guitars and a smile. If I'd stepped out into the car park and seen an authentic 1960 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck, the sort of rig Steven Spielberg employed in his early movie Duel, I would not have been in the least bit surprised.
Of course Michael Chapman is no redneck trucker, even if he looks like one. He said 'I've just realised, I've left my guitar stand at last night's gig' as he released his guitars from their respective cases. Still slightly jetlagged from a recent visit to the States, the singer/guitarist seemed in a cheerful mood, especially during the sound check, which went particularly well. With both guitars sounding as good as they possibly could, the singer-songwriter and notable guitar player, in lieu of his missing stands, placed the guitars on top of their cases perched upon the main stage behind the spot where the musician would soon be performing.
There was a good couple of hours to kill between the sound check and showtime, so I sat with the legendary guitar player in the foyer, flanked by tropical botanical decoration, reminiscing about those heady Harvest days, John Peel and Wiz Jones, about the frustrations of modern travel and why he's still at it at 71. He said Charlie Watts explained it well when asked about playing with the Stones for forty years, declaring 'I've only being playing for five, the other thirty-five was just hanging around waiting to play.' Charlie got it right!
After the short wait around, the audience were all seated and the show began. I was amongst a small group of contenders in the 'youngest person in the room' competition before MC Paul Morowski got up to introduce the opening act Paul Pearson, the former being the clear winner by a generation at least. After Paul's short set, Michael Chapman took to the stage to perform a couple of sets opening the first with the title song from his 1999 album The Twisted Road. With most Michael Chapman performances, the guitar takes priority over the song content or the singer's voice and is always up in the mix. This is the way Chapman likes it. If I have to be picky, my only criticism is that he doesn't know when to stop. His repetitive guitar patterns either at the beginning of the song or at the end repeat just one or two times too many. There is some shuffling of feet during these extended solos, which don't appear to go anywhere. The solos in the middle are fine and serve their purpose well. Chapman explained to me earlier that his style is based on the old jazz masters, where instead of a sax solo in the middle of a song, he chooses the guitar instead. Perhaps I just see the opportunity for another three or four songs in the set wasted. Having said that, Michael Chapman wouldn't be Michael Chapman if he wasn't allowed to do exactly what he wants to do with his music.
Both sets featured songs from an impressive back catalogue of over thirty albums including Shuffleboat River Farewell, The Mallard and Postcards of Scarborough, with one or two lengthy instrumental guitar pieces including Trains (formerly Two Trains), during which a guitar string appeared to break, but upon inspection, the string had bizarrely lost its tension, completely slackening but not actually breaking. 'First time that's ever happened' quipped a puzzled Chapman.
Chapman's songs have travelled far and wide over the last 46 years, with some of them being recorded by the likes of Bridget St John, Rick Kemp and more recently Lucinda Williams, whose version of That Time of Night appears on a 70th birthday tribute album to the guitarist OH MICHAEL, LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE, performed tonight by its writer. Finishing with another early song from his WINDOW period, In the Valley, Chapman returned for the final encore of the Spanish-flavoured instrumental La Madrugarda, once again utilising his wedding ring as a slide and concluding another remarkable performance by one of our guitar legends.