Stephen Fretwell - Manchester Live Review
Stephen Fretwell & Liam Fray Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester 23/05/07 Live Review
A compact setting that has the artist penned in like a baboon in a zoo pen and a stuffy, sound stifling atmosphere would send many a personal acoustic performer, back to the dressing room with their guitar between their legs. Not Liam Fray, who cuts a figure like Noel Gallagher waiting at a bus stop, he opts to take it all in his stride and ambles into a parade of erstwhile and stirring, but bracing simplicity.
The meandering Mancunian blends urbane northern poetry and a Willy Mason moulding into Findlay Brown tinged vocal approach. Rugged, low-key street philosophy comes off with endearing grit and stern belief in highlight stroll, 'Not One Could I Give'. Something that will go down well when Fray graces Glastonbury this year, as will the dry humour that keeps the interest ticking over between songs. A laboured, almost spoken Joe Carnall (Milburn) kick, draws the heart out in numbers towards the end. Complementing the earthy nature of the material on display, enabling Fray to walk away and move forward to a reputation enhancing trip to Somerset.
The air is filled with a soul-stroking, heart tugging piece that stretches sorrowfulness to the edge, 'San Francisco Blues' and the momentum incrementally develops into the trickling turn of 'The Ground Beneath Your Feet'. These fresh snippets show the life-bearing Manchester based, Stephen Fretwell continuing to mould his thought provoking material, as he gets ready to move on from the renowned, sour pop punch given by 'Magpie' several years back. Such was the publicity and momentum gained by this album that following it up is a thankless task.
Reviewers' row in the auditorium sits wide-eyed hacks, like vultures waiting to swoop in on the merest slip and feed on another fleshy carcass fattened by the success of one album. To combat this unsavoury threat, what on earth do you do? Well, you could stick to the blue print of your successful past and add a few cranked up guitar pitches and change the name of the girl you're singing about? This isn't the Fretwell way; he chooses open out his philosophical soul, armed with only an acoustic guitar and proceeds to re-invent his old material. This, he blends in with even more personal and biting latest offerings, choosing to do so in a personal setting that soon has a friendly air, provided by a laid-back stage presence and cheeky crowd banter. 'Run' is stripped of its once masterful, sprightly pop cloak, as the lyrics are delivered with greater projection from a softer, less playful base to trigger thoughts of Rufus Wainwright without the pomposity. 'What's That You Say Little Girl' pumps up the blues into its lullaby foundation. Both of these are more than worthy for re-release in their re-jigged form.
Thanks to a plea from a journalist earlier on in the day, 'Emily' avoids the cull from the live setting and the warmth with which it is received implies that it may not be a temporary reprieve, either. An extra guitar by virtue of Fretwell's old friend John, gives 'Darling Don't' the necessary extra strand to add a slight noire element. For those who believe that this earnest performer's piano prowess is too often ignored, the rejuvenating 'Coney' captures that Duke Special frivolity. It is certainly going to provide the warmth, heart and a playful spring to the forthcoming second album. The banjo decorated 'Scar' shows a retro touch and adds to the growing life imbued by Fretwell. A performance of heart, soul, reflection and cutting cogency is delivered with a pleasing, genuine touch.
"This performance illuminates the point that invention is great, but re-invention is so much better."