Mornington Crescent. That’s basically Camden. A part of London that I haven’t generally had much time for in the 14 years I’ve lived in town. When I have been there I have admittedly generally had a good time but I fucking hate the market. And I have a painful memory of trying to see Rufus Wainwright there years ago. I walked past a small queue certain that it was NOT for the gig I was going to. I went to ask a policeman if he knew where I should be going. He pointed back to the queue. It was enormous. I joined it and missed out by two people.
I arrived at St Pancras Old Church on a blustery evening, walking into the area between Mornington Crescent and Kings Cross. It was dark, unnaturally so, like there had been a localised power cut, or someone had smashed all the bulbs in all the streetlights. I had a moment of doubt and called my companion for the evening. It was the right place, he was already there. Thank goodness. Inside, a man was selling beer. Booze ? In a church ? That isn’t communion wine ? Give me two cans.
The church is beautiful. Very heavy on iconography and gold leaf, making it feel ever so slightly russian orthodox, but there were pews so this high-church Prod felt right at home. The place was wonderfully atmospheric, reeking of wax and lit with the motherlode of tealights. One beer down and the assembled crowd had relaxed enough to start swearing in the chapel. Such delicious low-grade thrills, and the gig hadn’t even started yet.
Out he came. I’d studiously avoided listening to anything by Tom Hickox before this gig, and hadn’t even seen any photographs. The gig was one of those ‘intimate’ ones and I wanted to give the music the chance to work its magic free from any preconceptions. Like going to the cinema to see a film you have heard nothing about and for which you haven’t seen the trailer. Always better that way. Well, I thought, is this the Viking Stuart Staples ? The answer is no. He’s not got the sideburns, opting instead for wearing a beard, a choice I wholeheartedly endorse without bias. And his voice possesses a deal more range than Stuart’s.
I was pleased with the start – I’ve been to gigs where people with good singing voices hit it too hard too early and end up knackering their voices before the gig has really begun. “The Angel of the North” was a solid, stately opener. Although it suffered from the same problem as every other song in the set – the mix didn’t do much for the light and shade of the band. Only when the arrangements were sparer did the subtle touches and higher notes of the mandolin and guitar emerge from the overwhelming violin or the power of the bass/piano/drum axis.
Knowing where and when to employ space and how to highlight particular instruments is some trick – I remember really hearing that for the first time on Talk Talk’s “Spirit of Eden” but the way it should work for Tom Hickox feels more connected with Noah and the Whale‘s remarkable “The First Days of Spring”. I thought they were getting close on “The Pretty Pride of Russia” and, sorry to say, the best song of the night, the closing cover of Eels’ “Railroad Man”. Elsewhere he proved a good narrator, telling us the tale of “The Lisbon Maru” and one of its survivors before giving us his take on it in song. And “Let Me Be Your Lover” was another good example of his voice being given the time and the room to let us really listen to it.
Clearly, this guy still has a lot more to do and to give; he’s won quite strong praise from some well-seasoned music journalists, already has relationships with sizeable corporations, airplay on national radio, and isn’t content writing and singing his own songs, he’s also a playwright. Let’s see where this goes, eh ?