Totnes-born singer-songwriter Ryan Keen has graced the same stages as megastars like Ed Sheeran and X Factor champion Leona Lewis playing support slots on huge national and indeed world tours, but if he has been changed by these massive brushes with success, you’d never know. He has also toured with some of the most interesting support acts, often fellow up and coming creative types he can collaborate with in the recording studio and most pleasingly, live on the stage.
Facts first, I’ve seen and met Ryan on four occasions (including this gig), having first seen him take to a startlingly sparse stage ahead of Leona Lewis’ appearance at Sheffield City Hall back in 2013. He appeared humble and incredibly talented and was able to make his achingly beautiful brand of guitar-led music echo around the vast space of the venue but also into the ears of the audience not perhaps expecting an act like Ryan ahead of a pop diva like Leona. His mastery of the guitar (more on that later) is impressive, but also his use of technology such as delay pedals which provide backing to his strumming and plucking, adding choral sounds to give even more depth and layers of mood to his repertoire. The second time I saw him perform was in the tiny Adelphi in Hull alongside fellow rising star Gavin James, effectively a pub function room with just a handful of people able to fit inside. His act there was intimate, rousing and allowed him to wander into the crowd as he performed, something which can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Having released his debut album “Room For Light” in 2013, Ryan has spent the years since touring and working away on new music. Two years ago, I was lucky enough to see him perform new material at Manchester’s Night and Day café, another intimate venue befitting his emotive, stirring sound and this evening at The Islington in London, Ryan plays a triumphant return on home ground after a couple of European dates, mixing his old classics with more confident sounding versions of his new songs. Releasing four singles so far this year, Ryan has mixed up his house style (I want to call it nautical folk as there’s something evocative of the ocean and no doubt his Devon home in that first album’s line up of songs) with some new collaborations and slight changes of tone.
But first, Corey Harper takes to the stage, a soulful Californian playing his first gig here and genuinely enjoying the chance. It’s clear he’s also bonded with Ryan and his fellow musician friends as Corey enlists the help of Ryan’s drummer de rigueur Lee “Leroy” Levent, talented singer Jasmine Thompson and Dan Dare, a writer, rapper and producer who joins both Corey and Ryan on stage to add an extra dimension to several songs. Corey’s music is great guitar-pop Americana, all about life and love, and given an extra punch by his voice which is pure rock anthem growl at times and haunting falsetto the rest. He is instantly likeable, as humble and talented as the man he is supporting and he adds an emotional howl to tracks like “Keeping Me Alive” and “California Sun” and a clever cover of Chance the Rapper’s “Same Drugs”. His set is short and sweet but he returns later to help out with a few of Ryan’s own songs and it’s not difficult to imagine the two of them happily jamming together on the tour bus as they headed across mainland Europe to this venue.
One of the great things about seeing a live act whose catalogue you know well, is to see how they balance the old favourites with their newer material and if those more recent, less familiar songs stand comfortably alongside the classics. As Ryan Keen treats the hungry packed out room at The Islington to a set list of nearly twenty songs, it’s obvious that he has some crackers up his sleeves, ready for a second and even third or fourth album as he discusses just how much writing and collaborating he’s been doing.
Opener “See Me Now” is moody and reflective and instantly showcases the guitar witchcraft that Ryan performs. Not content with merely strumming or plucking the guitar, his fingers deftly dance across the entire instrument in an engaging and entertaining percussive style which sees him adding his own accompanying finger taps and snaps which along with Leroy’s low key but essential drumming create a hypnotic and slightly tribal feeling at times. Brand new track and latest single “Ember” follows old favourite “Orelia” and takes the tone from the jaunty, folk (not quite a shanty, but certainly as memorable) to dark and soulful. Ryan can also write an instantly memorable lyric, allowing audiences to sing along even if they’ve only heard the song once or twice, or never at all.
The tracks from “Room For Light”, such as my personal favourite “Old Scars”, sit beautifully between the newer, darker songs and Ryan introduces the Simon and Garfunkel-esque “Thoughts” by meditating on where life has taken him over the last year or so, through battles with depression and some low times which the song explores with its stirring “what if I’m not who I thought?” refrain and whilst Ryan is insanely talented and surely destined for the biggest stages in the land as headliner, not support, he hasn’t had the easiest ride so far with the loss of a close friend and a savage hand injury right before a dream slot supporting Ed Sheeran just a couple of the hurdles he’s overcome.
The stage becomes a revolving door of talent once more as Corey Harper returns alongside Dan Dare who is recording under the name Slang, producing some catchy pop-rap hybrid tracks, several of which we are treated to tonight. Another of Ryan’s collaborators is Australian producer Johnny Castro, better known as Yeah Boy who isn’t on stage tonight, but provides a slightly different vibe on the track “Guidance” with layered vocal sample backing and drum loops which sounds achingly optimistic and anthemic. Along again, Ryan shines with “Trouble”, the first track I ever heard from him, which is as sassy a piece of bluegrass country music you could ever hope to hear from a British musician.
Ending with an unplugged pair of songs during which Ryan stands right on the edge of the stage, so the audience can almost gather around and embrace him and you can feel there is so much love in the room for the man and his music. His final song is the emphatic “Thank You” and he truly means it, offering praise and gratitude to the audience for their support and patience and hangs around to meet and greet the adoring fans once we are ushered from the room. He’s travelled a long way to be here tonight and he’s very appreciative that we are there to see him. I notice a woman I remember from the Manchester gig who must have travelled some distance. I myself have popped down from Sheffield and I look around the room and see Gavin James, now the toast of Radio 1, there just to support his friend. Ryan Keen should feel very proud of himself.
Find out more about Corey Harper at his website.
• See Me Now
• Know About Me
• When the Day Breaks
• Friday Morning Feeling
• Old Scars
• Sweet Lies (feat. Slang)
• Let it Go (feat. Slang & Corey Harper)
• Skin and Bones
• Aiming For the Sun
• Thank You