At the weekend, I was fortunate enough to catch Karl Culley playing headline in a ‘one night only’ sell out show in The Harrogate Theatre. I’ve been a fan of Karl’s for years now – and was really excited about the prospect of hearing him live, playing a bunch of material he’s been beavering away with since he moved to Poland a few years ago.
Graham Chalmers – writer of the 18 year strong weekly ‘Gig Scene’ in The Harrogate Advertiser was there with his promoter and master of ceremonies hat on. This being the 100th show organised by Graham, reminded me that as well as being the most prolific and recognised music writer in Harrogate, it’s often forgotten that Graham is also responsible for putting on a fair chunk of quality, live music in the town. His newly formed vehicle for promotion is named ‘Abattoir Blues’ to which the Nick Cave fans will approve. I’d say – it’d be worth looking out for promotions under this banner.
Speaking of Cave, the oft compared to Dragonfly Tattoo presented an acoustic version of their larger self (ie sans electric guitar and bass) and John on drums kept his part ultra light. Having seen the full fat version of the band recently, the effect of the contrast resulted in throwing the more unusual instrumentation – cello, bodhran and french horn – up front and center, complimenting Vicky’s dulcet tones and keys beautifully. The set up has got to be a one off – and the sound it produced as a result, unique. Beautiful and haunting. Precision angst.
After Dragonfly, the young Samantha Smith owned the stage for a while. A strong presence in bare feet and powerful set of pipes, an agreeable fashion of transitioned to the intermission. A fairly unanimous crowd-sourced answer of “original” to her “cover or original?” question coupled with the reaction to the quip about missing ‘The Voice / X-Factor” being largly unempathised with, gives you an idea of they type of head in the house – staunch fans of the original.
After an intermission – shared with the Theatre’s main performance – we climbed back to the studio in The Gods, for the main event.
Graham’s introduction for Karl, if you didn’t know otherwise might make you either think “you don’t get out much” or “how much is he paying you?”- because the statement was so bold; out of his 18 years being a the heart of the town’s home grown music scene, he said that Karl was the best Harrogate singer-songwriter he’d seen. As this statement settled in, I looked around the room and there was a collective – “wait.. y.. yea. I think I agree” type slight nod and raised eyebrow – from those of us that had seen him before at least. For a man who consumes as much music as Graham does, that is a massive accolade – but – one that I for one, agree with. I’d phrase it slightly differently though – the best guitarist I’ve ever seen. From anywhere. At any time (and I’ve seen a lot of guitarists).
I’d perhaps want to break down ‘best’ though. Best originality? Yes. Best technically? Yes. Most charismatic and captivating? Yes. Lots more boxes, all ticked. His seriously cool Martin 000-15 guitar had all the guitarists in the room drooling with Genvy. (That’s a word I’ve just made up. It means Guitar Envy). His playing skill by far matches the quality of his instrument through. One of the first things that strikes you is the sheer pace of his playing style. It’s something I can’t quite get my head around. He’s got the ability to play several notes when most other guitarist would, in the same time frame, only get one note in, yet it’s not just noise, or playing for the sake of showing off, each note plucked is integral to the whole piece building up melody upon melody where each constituent part is crystal clear. With that much melody, it’s amazing to hear someone who’s created so much new sequencing of notes. Often very complex patterns yet made to sound so very fluid and somehow, mellow.
Karl’s voice – somewhere around the Neil Young and Nick Drake falsetto to modal register – even shades of Brian Ferry as my friend pointed out – is the perfect partner to his guitar. Rich and earnest. Smooth and full ranged. A voice that tells a cracking yarn who’s plot ranges from tongue in cheek songs like Qualifier – a song about a struggling tennis player; “It’s a hard, hardcourt” being a line that can’t fail to put a smile on your face, to the mystery of Dragon Kite. An incredible package of consummate artistry.
The more than just a hat stand (gig joke) groove-dragon (another gig joke) Ashley Johnson on upright bass was a catalyst to the groove and gave a beautiful warmth and depth to the performance, complimenting the main man Karl. It’s apparent that these guys are good friends off stage and clearly know each others musically almost like brothers. Yesteryear Harrogate music fans may remember the fabulous ‘Las Sangras’ circa 2006, where at the time of their Big Top Squalor album, Ashley was on bass, baritone ukelele and lapsteel whilst Karl’s main roll was that of drummer and percussionist.
Back up to the hear and now though the big Karl and Ash news is the new album Phosphor. I bought a copy at the gig and listened to it on the way into work – whilst driving across the Yorkshire Dales – this morning. I’m thinking of writing a separate review of that on its own at some point, but suffice to say, it’s brilliant. The essence of a music can so easily be lost when recorded but this production hasn’t lost a drop. That’s all three albums I’m lucky enough to own now – particularly the first one I’ve played to death – but I get the feeling, this new album will be played quite a bit this summer.
Karl and Ashley are in the middle of a UK tour at the moment – if you get the chance, go see.
More info : Karl’s official website : www.karlculley.co.uk