You’ll have to bear with me on this review, as my memories of it are somewhat sketchy and my notes, well, the less said about them the better. I can recall dancing with strangers while yelling along to the lyrics “Let’s get wasted on Rum & Ginger”, and I know that we missed our train home. I also know I woke up the following morning to find an empty wallet, my head was in pieces and I’d bought a band t-shirt about three sizes too small for me. Thanks Skinny Lister, you’ve got a lot to answer for.
Despite all of that however, I know it was one of the best gigs I’ve been to for a long, long time. It was a show of reckless abandon, a whirlwind of entertainment – it was one of those evenings that just seemed to be over all too soon, the type that still has you absent-mindedly humming along several days later. The Cambridge date landed in the middle of the ‘Down on Deptford Broadway’ tour, a nationwide promotion of the new Skinny Lister album, and a chance to continue on with their reputation as one of the more raucous, debauched and hardworking bands going. They didn’t disappoint.
They’d brought with them Sean McGowan in support. “Not Shane McGowan” he told us, “Sorry if you came down early expecting to see him. I’m not related to Alastair McGowan either, and yes, I do look like George Michael. That’s my problem not yours”. McGowan went on to introduce himself as “a barman and toilet cleaner from Southampton” before leading the early evening crowd through a mightily impressive set, which suggests he’s surely destined for better things. In his pre-gig interview with us he mentioned his motivation for song writing comes from the stories around his own life – a reflection of the everyday working man – and with his long standing accomplice Dean Paul on guitar, the two of them gave us a showcase of exactly that.
There’s an honesty and candidness that’s refreshing about Sean McGowan – in between songs such as ‘Neverland’ and ‘Millbrook Road’, sung through gritted teeth with a wince inducing sense of hurt in his voice, he repeatedly reiterates his love for playing live music, and his gratitude for being listened to. New songs in the form of ‘Place Your Bets’ and ‘Come Unstuck’ continue along a similar theme, while Max Thomas from Skinny Lister wanders out with his Melodeon to join them on stage for ‘£5.25’. Having seen McGowan perform before, he’s noticeably grown into his role as a performer – playing more off the crowd and adapting his songs with age – but it’s his signature closure of ‘All The Best’ that once again serves to leave a lasting reminder with all those in attendance. Summarising his ideology and his discontent of existing class politics with some viciously delivered spoken word, Sean McGowan signs off with ragged flourish, and it’s pretty evident he’s won over the room.
The main act should’ve had little need to win over the room, but there’s some evident dismay on the face of leading lady Lorna Thomas as she surveys the scene in front of her. “Have you lot been working?” she bellows, gesturing at all those seated around the fringes of the room, “Come on! It’s Saturday night!” Having kicked off proceedings with the two openers from the new album – the contemporary sea-shanty ‘Raise a Wreck’ and ‘George’s Glass’ – you got the sense it was taking longer than usual to get the crowd warmed up. Heads did start bobbing as ‘Trawlerman’ and the up tempo close of ‘Colours’ came and went, but it was the opening track from their debut album ‘‘If the Gaff Don’t Let us Down’ that finally seemed to give the Cambridge crowd the collective boot up the backside they needed, and then we were off.
It’s all a bit of a blur from here on if I’m honest. There’s a definite memory of Hawaiian born Double Bass player Michael Camino hoisting his hefty instrument above his head during their rendition of ‘Cathy’, before going one better and attempting to defy the sensible laws of gravity by crowd surfing with said Double Bass. Chief vocalist Dan Heptinstall led the way alongside Lorna Thomas for most of the proceedings, the former now stripped down to a fetching white vest and the latter often disappearing off into the crowd to dance with whoever was in grabbing distance. The band as a whole make for quite a sight when in full flow. Stood five strong on an equal keel across the stage, with drummer Thom Mills tucked in behind them, the intensity of their performance is upfront and inescapable, their playing as tight as you’d expect for a band so well-travelled.
By the time a rowdy rendition of ‘John Kanaka’ came around there was barely a soul in the room not roaring the words back at Sam Brace – taking a break from his multi-instrumental duties to be lead caller for this sea shanty – and the band went onto endear themselves further by announcing they’d be returning to play the Cambridge Folk Festival once again this year. It was an announcement met with cries of delight from the audience, the band are surely destined to become firm festival favourites at our annual shindig, and the romance to be was marked with the sultriness of ‘Seventeen Summers’, an amorous waltz which seemed to set the mood to perfection. And that’s something they seem to have nailed down – the ability to grab the crowd’s attention and set the mood as they please.
On more than one occasion they’d abruptly switch from fast paced jigs and ditties to much slower, more sombre numbers – most notably with ‘Bonnie Away’, sung beautifully by Lorna Thomas – before striding back into something altogether more frantic and more chaotic, but just as impeccably performed. As they closed off with ‘Forty Pound Wedding’ – written by the father of band siblings Max and Lorna – there was not a hope in hell they wouldn’t return for a reprieve, the baying crowd were quite clearly not finished yet. And so with the briefest of breaks, with the sweat and beer still running down our backs and faces, the band returned. Heptinstall led us through ‘Six Whiskies’ – from the brand new album but already a vintage singalong – before Sean McGowan returned to the stage to join a swashbuckling rendition of ‘South Australia’, complete with imaginary towropes being hauled in. Finishing with ‘Wild as the Wind Blows’, which brought the house crashing down with a drunken flourish, it was evident from all around that it had been quite a show, and one of those evenings that will stick for a long, long time in the memory. Or perhaps in my case, and of plenty more in attendance I’m sure, not.