In his gentle, self-deprecating way, Alton Wahlberg says his songs are seldom happy and frequently depressing. I would argue that he simply tells real-life stories and doesn’t sugar coat them. I came across his music some years ago and have been a fan ever since.
An opportunity to cover not one but two back-to-back gigs by Alton was far too tempting to miss and I was delighted when Sara at The Hunter Club agreed to let me cover both evenings. There were different supports acts on each evening and I for one always have time for a support act. These gigs took place just before Christmas – on 18th & 19th December before tier 4 happened.
Friday’s show was opened by Three Years Younger. Sisters Charlotte and Megan looking and sounding like they had been on the blue smarties all day – they were just so pumped to be performing live with a real three-dimensional audience. Despite the excitement their performance was perfection – superb harmonies and excellent musicianship kept the audience enthralled. According to the girls this was a bucket list gig for them. I do hope it won’t be a one off. You can find them on YouTube… its cruel, but look out for their lockdown Vlogs – if only for Megan trying to look serious whilst wearing a bright yellow dog onsie!
Laura Wyatt – according to compére Sara, was outside in the corridor reminding herself how to play guitar when her turn came. Surviving on just four hours sleep and cans of Red Bull she seemed nervous, until that is, she started to sing. My wife hates it when I compare new artists to other more well-known ones. I only do it to try and explain what I’m hearing – in this case take out your musical blender, add a pinch of Amy Winehouse, a drop of Nora Jones and a good wholesome helping of Caro Emerald. Blend briefly then sieve through the finest Suffolk silk and you will get a hint of what we were listening to – it was awesome! Seek out her track ‘Oh Boy’ on Spotify. Life has sidetracked the debut album but we are assured it is on its way – and I’m in the queue to get my copy now.
Saturday’s show saw Serena Grant up first and like everyone else glad to have a real live gig to be playing. Quite apart from the passionate performances of her own songs, this woman is brave – she indulged in live musical improvisation! She asked for a subject and made a song up as she went along. She closed her eyes, and we became the soft toys in her bedroom – that’s how she started way back when.
Next up was Joe Keeley, another new name to me and somehow, I wasn’t expecting country music. I have no issues with country music, especially when done well and Joe done very well. This was his first solo gig since the summer and he admitted to being rusty. It didn’t show. Joe’s band, imaginatively called The Joe Keeley Band (!) released their debut album ‘Blackwood’ just in time for Covid to scupper plans to tour it. He played a number of acoustic tracks from the album including an acoustic version of ‘Half Broke Horses’ which conjured up memories of Kenny Chesney. His rendition was excellent but check out the full band version on Blackwood, track nine – well worth a listen.
But I have not yet mentioned Mr Wahlberg amid all the excitement of all these new sounds and faces. The last time I had an opportunity to hear Alton live was at The John Peel Centre in June of 2019 just after he launched his album ‘Photographs and Memories’. And here I was at back-to-back gigs. It’s not something I often do and what struck me was how different they both were – neither was better than the other, just different. The difference was not just the set list – Alton has been at this for a few years now and he can slip songs in and out of a set effortlessly, but the crowd can make a difference too. It was interesting seeing how Alton managed the different crowds – being a performer isn’t just about singing your songs.
Included in both sets was ‘On The Mend’ – a favorite of mine from Alton’s last EP ‘Rise’. Written by Lou Spencer, who’s raspy voice features on the EP, it was in fact Lou’s swansong to the music industry having decided that it was not the life for him. ‘Twenty-Four Years’ about the man running the London marathon for his late wife always leaves a lump. During soundcheck, the sound engineer Barney asked Alton if he could play an upbeat song – something to help him get the levels right. Sara suggested the one about the bloke living on the streets… the one about the woman with cancer… the man who’s wife cheated on him… yeah – that happy one! And indeed, that is what ‘One Way’ is about – but you cannot help smiling, it’s such an upbeat number.
Naturally there were Christmas songs and covers – audience requests even. As Alton’s Mum and Dad were there on Friday, his Dad having just retired after thirty eight years with the same company, it was not surprising that he played Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’ for him. His method of choosing a Christmas song was a little unorthodox – it was the Christmas Number One the year he was born – ‘Only You’, from The Flying Pickets never sounded better. On Saturday Alton proved just how versatile a performer he is by including ‘Wrecking Ball’ by Miley Cyrus, and rounding off with ‘Sweet Caroline’, suitably hummed along to by the audience.