live review: Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, RM Hubbert, Cambridge Portland Arms 27th March 2012

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(promo pic by Sarah Bowden)

I had been looking forward to this tour, as it featured Wells and Moffat, the makers of one of my favourite albums of 2011, with RM Hubbert in support, whose recent album Thirteen Lost and Found is likely to be in my end of year list this year. I was privileged to catch the tour on its first night in the intimate surroundings of the Portland Arms, which suited both performances really well.

RM Hubbert is on reasonably early but there is a good crowd for his solo guitar set. He does appear very skilful, mixing up styles of playing as diverse as flamenco and post-rock. It is very natural and acoustic, and it's refreshing to hear so few effects and no loopstation trickery, just a bit of reverb. The set is mostly instrumental though he does perform the very sad 'The False Bride', replacing Alasdair Roberts's vocal with his own.
'For Joe' which he dedicates to his late former father-in-law, is a beautiful instrumental piece and 'Switches part two' shows his impressive technique in coupling a pretty tune with percussive tapping on the body of the instrument.
He talks a bit about his chronic depression and how he plays gigs to cope with it, and how he finds it easier to talk to a room full of strangers as he is a naturally poor communicator. Some of his music is a bit bleak but on both his albums, and in his set tonight, he manages to make instrumental acoustic guitar tunes engaging, and that is a skill worth applauding. He brings out Aidan Moffat for 'Car Song', maybe the best song on the album and the highlight of the set even though Aidan has a "frog in his throat". He plays one more acoustic tune to close and I reckon he won quite a few people over tonight.

There is a slightly unconventional stage set up for Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, with two single drums at the front of the stage, a trumpet, a double bass and a piano. Once they take the stage it becomes clear that the drums are for Aidan who later explains that the regular drummer is busy doing "a degree in feminism" and couldn't make this gig. Aidan steps up to percussion duties for the whole set and does a fine job of it too. The rest of the band are Bill Wells on piano, Stevie Jones on acoustic double bass and Robert Henderson on trumpet.
They feel their way in gently with the instrumental 'Tasogare' leading straight into the excellent 'Let's Stop Here'. The minimal line-up and restrained playing give this a kind of lo-fi jazz feel, and they do actually sound like a distinct band in their own right. By the way, there no pics because of Aidan's style of singing with hand in front of his face, but who cares, if you are reading this you probably know what these guys look like, and their faces haven't changed.
Aidan is suffering from a head cold and goes heavily on the olbas oil for 'Ballad of the Bastard', which is one of the bigger vocal performances.
'Dinner Time' and 'Cages' are the most obviously jazz influenced pieces, their clever lyrics clicked with the crowd too. I got the feeling that they started to relax more after those two tunes were over, and they follow them with the contrast of the pure pop of their Bananarama cover 'Cruel Summer'. It's starting to be a really special gig now and the play a great version of 'The Copper Top' with trumpeter Robert multi-skilling by playing third hand on the piano as well as trumpet with his other hand.
'A Short Song to the Moon' provides a short burst of light relief before they play 'Glasgow Jubilee'; one of the highlights of the album and also one of the most sexually explicit songs of recent years. It is played acoustically in a different arrangement and is even more bare and raw than the album version, and just as poetically filthy.
'If You Keep Me In Your Heart' is another great song as is the main set closer 'The Greatest Story Ever Told'. There's something very fitting about ending the show with lines like "and remember, we invented love, and that's the greatest story ever told".
That IS the end of the set, except the venue is so small that they can't leave the stage and return for an encore so their just turn their backs for a while as the crowd applaud! The encore is worth it as well, we get the story song 'Man of the Cloth' which is the tale of an encounter at a fancy dress party, the succinct and poignant 'Box it up' and then the gentle lullaby 'And So We Must Rest' to end a lovely gig and a fine start to their tour.

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