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The ghosts of music hall stars past echo around the glittering, newly refurbished 'Good Old Days' theatre, as support act accordion and percussion duo The Hut People pose the question 'how many different percussion instruments can you cram into a twenty-five minute set?' The answer, it seems, is 'lots', and they are put to impressive use to warm us up nicely for the main attraction. The Young'uns' star is in rapid ascendance, not least due to their superb new album STRANGERS, most of which is showcased here tonight. The boys shuffle on from stage left and negotiate the steep rise of the City Varieties stage to cluster around a condenser mic for the opening acapella song, Cable Street. This is one of the several songs from the STRANGERS album which provide the album's theme and title, stories of real heroes past and present who have stamped their presence in history for a variety of reasons, usually with a strong sense of social justice to boot.
These songs come to life yet further when sung in the context of their back-story; 'Ghafoor's Bus, Carriage 12, Bob Cooney's Miracle, With These Hands and The Hartlepool Pedlar are all given added poignancy for their extended introductions. And just as it is the album highlight, Be The Man is for me the live show’s highlight too – the story of a gay Muslim's suicide told through the voice of his surviving partner, is listened to in pin-droppingly respectful silence, and greeted with rapturous applause. Sean Cooney's vocal is crisp and clear despite recent illness, and there are many audience members with something in their eye throughout.
But what sets the trio apart from their peers is the stark contrast between the high emotional charge of these songs, and the hilarious inter-song banter. David Eagle in particular is a manic exponent of the quick-witted repost and shaggy dog story, and when this is translated into song, as in his frenzied piano-bashing ditty When I’m Using Windows, which might have made even George Formby blush, we laugh more heartily than at many a comedy gig.
There is merely a hat-tip in the set list to the trio's shanty and covers dominated early material, and now that Cooney is writing so prolifically and successfully this newer direction will hopefully be mined extensively in the future, but let's hope they never lose that freshness and vitality which comes from the humour and strong sense of regional identity and social justice. It is this special combination which defines the live experience, and we leave uplifted and inspired, and humming the encore anthem, Sing John Ball, as we disappear in to the Leeds night. (Actually we went to the pub next door, but that doesn't sound quite as poetic).