Launching his 2017 solo tour, Scott Matthews chose the Edwardian grandeur of the Grade I listed Bath Komedia. It's eleven years since his debut album "Passing Stranger" marked him out as a composer and executor of sublimely haunting tracks. The BBC called it 2007's best-kept secret. It's ten years since he won the Ivor Novello Award for "Elusive". That we've been besieged by a legion of lesser melancholic singer-songwriters in the intervening decades and not consistently beguiled by Scott Matthews baffles me - more so after a dose of the 2017 iteration to remind me of his talent, which has eluded the mainstream for too long. The music business can definitely be fickle and unpredictable.
It's always heartening when the support act is a 'find', which is what Amy Sergeant felt like. Playing mostly her own songs in a twin-guitar arrangement with James Maltby, she came across as intense, heartfelt and humble, the highlight being the acoustic, KT Tunstall-like "Temper" which would sound excellent with a full band behind it. She took on "Losing My Religion" and Carole King's "Home Again", acknowledging that if she was going to do these songs, she'd better do them justice. She did just that.
Having just spent two months on the road in Europe with his band, Scott Matthews seemed to enjoy the contrast of being out there on his own; when I spoke to him after the gig, he talked about how playing on your own keeps you on your toes and gives you the freedom to do whatever you want. As his own lyric states, "There's nobody you can accuse/ The mirror portrays a bold truth". There's nowhere to hide, but you can be uncompromisingly yourself. And this is how he played for ninety minutes, interspersing his intense, rich vocals and precise musicianship with large slices of his own self-deprecating wryness between tracks, such as "Can we have more reverb on my guitar to cover the mistakes?" and a loveably-daft, protracted yarn about making 'f*** all' from having a song used in a French perfume commercial - all natural-seeming, not contrived. There were genuinely people present who looked like old friends who'd come for a catch-up - to see how he was getting on, as much as to hear his music.
As well as manifesting songwriting and technical skills, Matthews is a magnetic presence. His performing face tends to vacillate between that look associated with fathoming fiendish Sudoku, and the anguished thousand-yard stare of someone watching the last bus disappear off down the High Street. He was working a black polo neck, his ironic homage to the Milk Tray man, sleight of hand and dramatic eyebrows being his line of minimalist dynamism.
Of the thirteen splendid tracks, opener "Virginia" and "City Headache" brought out the reverb-laden Buckleyesque chills most, his piercing upper register juxtaposed with the impressively gruff heft of his lower one, akin to Ben Ottewell of Gomez. On "Passing Stranger" Matthews employed precisely such a stranger, Aaron, from the audience to play the djembe. Similarly, he called up brave volunteers for the full interactive Matthews experience on "Bad Apple" to play the djembe and tambourine (Kevin and Joseph - you heard their names here first, OK?). This willingness to reach out, be accessible and vulnerable meant that we shared the gig more, and laughed with him when he ballsed up his words on "Elusive", hardly a song with which he's unfamiliar, as he pointed out. He said he was going to post the bass part to "Two Entwined" online, the current AA side release along with "Drifter", and invite people to learn it and play with him at forthcoming gigs.
The encore was his landmark song, "Elusive" and the new, hypnotic, intricately picked Donovan/Leonard Cohen tune "Home and Dry". He said that after a gig in Oxford in 2004, a woman wrote to him to complain that he didn't include "Elusive" in the set and concluded her rant with the futile and grandiose, "I am no longer a fan". I arrived at the Komedia as a reviewer and left as very much a fan.