Bill Ryder-Jones – South Street Arts Centre, Reading

Thursday 26th September, 2019

I love Bill Ryder-Jones. There I’ve said it. He has the sort of vulnerable, fragile voice that just cuts through me and makes me cry. He makes wonderfully beautiful yet melancholic music and I love him for it.

The first time I saw him was in Sheffield, on a bill with Richard Hawley and John Grant (talk about a treat, that was a very special night indeed) where I had never heard of him and was knocked out by his achingly beautiful vocals, including a Welsh language Super Furry Animals cover. He also wrestled with a very long jelly snake sweet and cans of lager from a blue plastic bag. He was shambolic, funny and I fell a teeny bit in love with him.

Since then I’ve seen him play solo, with a full band, in an arts centre, a record shop and at a festival. His music is always brilliant, even if he is suffering with stage fright and/or over self medicating with alcohol. The tension inherent in the conflict in Bill’s soul, between being compelled to make and share music while being terrified of doing the same is something I in part understand and respond to on a very human level. I always want to cuddle him and tell him it will be ok before a gig (even if that would be weird) and Bill has been gentlemanly enough to let me give him a cuddle after a gig. It feels like the right thing, I can’t help but feel I want to offer him comfort. It is also a tiny gesture of thanks. I may not have lived Bill’s life but I have been affected by loss, grief and mental health problems. We almost all have. Bill writes about his, wearing his heart on his sleeve and baring his soul in his music. Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable in standing on a stage and sharing that with strangers?

Last years album Yawn, was full of those sort of beautifully sad songs and the reworking of them as Yawny Yawn as piano led tracks made some of them even more heartbreaking. This tour is to support that and as I’ve never heard Bill play piano I was prepared to trek out to Reading to hear them played live even when my other Reading gigs have been fairly disastrous.

South Street Arts Centre was really nice. Small, friendly and with a monkey hand stamp I liked the place. Even if I was expecting seats and it was standing. It was an intimate space, maybe only 100 of us in there.

Support was from Lucy Gaffney who is a singer songwriter from Belfast who has a cracking voice. Her short set included a brilliant cover of Linger (yes, you did it justice) and songs of love ending that seemed quite poignant. I would happily hear her play again.

Bill started with John on the piano. I love the ambiguity of this track, not knowing for sure if Bill is singing a Dear John letter himself to a lost lover, or putting himself in the shoes of a woman who is. It shouldn’t be striking to hear men singing directly to other men, should it? Yet is is.

Part of the idea of this tour is taking requests and Bill took one from a lad in the audience who looked about my son’s age (12) for Two To Birkenhead even though it meant setting up his guitar pedals. I bet the boy was thrilled – I saw him getting his T shirt signed at the end of the night and it gladdened my heart. Sadly the louder voices in the crowd (all male, unsurprisingly) drowned out my request (but it was ok he played the song I would have asked for later anyway). Seabirds made me cry. Ditto Lemon Trees and Wild Roses.  I don’t even know why I react with such strong emotion to songs, I just can’t help it. The aching and the longing and the sense of loss just climb into my heart and make me weep. Bill’s is the sort of voice that moves me and isn’t that what music is for? To connect us? To help us heal? In sharing the vulnerability and the pain, we know we are not alone and that is therapeutic. Well it is for me. In music I have a home, in music I am safe. I am wrapped in melody and sound like a comfort blanket and for those moments everything will be ok. Bill Ryder-Jones is one of the artists that make me feel like this.

Any man who can take the title of a tune from Grease and turn it into his own touching and challenging song about being a man who maybe, on occasion, likes to be with other men and wear make up and heels, is a man for whom I have a lot of respect. There are worse things any of us can do than go with a boy or two, that’s for damn sure. And it was fucking fabulous to hear Bill telling the young lad to ignore the ending of Grease for the way the female character became subservient – chaps this is how you become a feminist ally! Also please, Bill, agree with me that Grease 2 is a way better film? Perhaps a cover of Cool Rider or Reproduction would be in order one day. Or I Will Survive, that you teased us with on the piano. Ach, whatever you want to play is alright with me, Bill. Just keep playing with such openness and love and I will keep responding with the same. I’ll see you again next week in London.


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