Spencer Cullum & Sean Thompson, Bobby Lee – Gullivers, Manchester 06/03/2022

We take a trip across the M62 for a Sunday night with the Nashville songwriter.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in Manchester for a gig. Arriving at Piccadilly Station to a packed platform full of dejected Manchester United fans immediately starts me off in good cheer, and I manage to navigate the dark streets to the venue with no problems, the city still alive and full of activity even on a cold Sunday night.

Stepping inside the venue, the delinquent fuzz of the BuzzcocksOrgasm Addict blasting over the PA, although great, seems a slightly incongruous fit for the show that’s about to start. Both of tonight’s acts’ recent records made my top 10 list last year, Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection being a lovely journey taking in folk-rock and Kosmiche with hints of jazz making for an autumnal palette that evokes the likes of Kevin Ayers and fellow Canterbury travellers Caravan.

Bobby Lee’s Origin Myths came to my attention via the wonderful artwork of Darryl Norsen – my advice is to check out any record where you see his name credited on the artwork, a philosophy that hasn’t failed me yet – and the homespun double-denim choogle contained within has sat nicely on my turntable since release.

Soft birdsong recordings from their keyboard welcome Bobby Lee and his trio to the stage, as the strains of Golden Brown by the Stranglers fade out in the speakers. The ambience of Gullivers is a good fit for Bobby Lee. The wooden floor, sticky with the tack of beers spilled past, perfectly matches the swampy vibes emanating from his vintage amplifier.

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Opening with a couple of tracks from last year’s Origin Myths, the band bring the songs alive with more raw power than on record, with bassist Mark Armstrong moving between keys and bass, and the drum machine frequently employed as underpinning to the deft rhythmic touch of Guy Whittaker. Lee’s guitar swirls and crunches, tremolo shuddering as he weaves melodies from his semi-acoustic.

A new song titled The HR Manager’s Beautiful Daughter is a welcome addition to Lee’s canon, the titular pun nodding to The Incredible String Band going down well with a crowd well-versed in 1968 folk-rock albums. Next to me, someone is thoughtfully sketching the band out in pencil. As the band grow into the gig, the bass finds its rightful place in the sound mix, emerging loud and triumphant during Listings.

Closing with the muscular riffs of Lee’s deconstruction of Warren Zevon’s Join Me In L.A (as covered on Lee’s first record, Shakedown in Slabtown) suddenly the drummer rises from his seat in alarm. He continues playing, shaking his maraca and laughing as he rattles along the kit, drum fills building in intensity as the song reaches a cathartic climax. Only after the song (and set) finishes, do we realise why he has taken to his feet – the metal framework of the drum stool has sheared through the fabric and padding of his seat, making for an unbearably uncomfortable throne.

A few short minutes later, Spencer Cullum shuffles on and introduces his partner in crime for the evening, Nashville guitarist Sean Thompson, who played on Cullum’s LP as well as leading his own Sean Thompson’s Weird Ears project. It is clear from the opening notes of Imminent Shadow that Thompson is an expressive player, colouring the song with a sound that is rich and yet spacious.

Second song Seaside opens with a beautiful cascade of jazzy notes before settling into its rhythm. Cullum’s nylon-strung acoustic sketches out some complicated-sounding chords but never without a melody to carry your ear along. Most of the highlights from Cullum’s LP get an airing here, and his cover of Mike Heron’s The Tree sounds fantastic as Incredible String Band fans get their second reference of the evening.

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Later in the set, Thompson takes the lead vocal as Cullum accompanies on pedal steel guitar. It’s always a treat to hear a well-played steel, and tonight is no exception, especially on their cover of the traditional Black Waterside, recalling Bert Jansch’s rendition from his Jack Orion LP. Between songs, Thompson cracks wise about people mistaking him for the son of Richard Thompson, and if I’m honest, after hearing him play, I wouldn’t blame anyone for making that assumption. Different styles but both mesmerising players all the same.

You can tell the Nashville session pedigree of the duo as they work their way around some of Thompson’s forthcoming solo material, due out in summer on the excellent Los Angeles-based Curation Records. They even find a way to work in some Allen Toussaint New Orleans groove to proceedings. For the self-proclaimed ‘pair of sidemen’, they exude a quiet, relaxed charisma that makes for a warm atmosphere in the room.

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There’s plenty of room around the bodies in the venue, but as I try to get closer to the action, I realise that the curious lighting in Gullivers means one spot in front of the stage is rendered uninhabitable by an intense spotlight that both blinds and bakes anyone foolish enough to take up residence in its glare. Back to the shadows I go.

With Thompson passing the mic back to Cullum to finish off the evening, we get a brilliant rendition of LP opener Jack of Fools and covers of Moondog and Duncan Browne to close. It is barely after ten bells and the audience is happy to wander downstairs for another pint and to discuss the finer points of In the Land of Grey & Pink, Bayou Country or Shooting at the Moon. Those of us of an age where the spine begins to creak after standing too long are thankful for the brevity, ensuring an evening of quality over quantity. I head off for the train home, convinced that these two acts tonight can create many more of their own recordings that stand up alongside those that inspire them.

Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection is out now via Human Error Music. Purchase from Bandcamp.

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