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A slight drizzle began to dampen the cobbled streets and overgrown parish churchyard along Hartley Street in the Heeley district of Sheffield, whilst kids kicked a ball against the stone wall of the venue, behind which the stage was being prepared for tonight's show. Across the road, the old Victorian school complex, latterly converted into studio spaces, displayed a black and white image of Prince in one of its windows, which had obviously been there for some time, certainly long before recent unexpected events, but still poignant nonetheless. Upon his arrival in the street, Martin Stephenson chatted to the kids as they played, making the most of the fading daylight, whilst greeting one or two of the early arrivals as he made his way from the car to the door. I stood by the steel gates trying in vain to shelter from the drizzle, hands in pockets, when the singer passed by, sticking his hand out for me to shake with that familiar smile, a straw hat perched upon the back of his head. He was running slightly late and still had a sound check to do, although I'm pretty certain he would have preferred to stay with the kids on the street, kicking a ball around.
Tonight's sold out show could not possibly have been more relaxed, certainly for Martin Stephenson and his audience, although I suspect organiser Andy Whitehouse couldn't relax until the show was in full flow, having not only seen to it that the singer arrived at the venue safely, followed by standing at the door greeting everyone as they arrived, taking tickets and making sure everyone was okay, after which he jumped up on stage to open the concert with a few songs of his own, including his band The Silver Darlings' new single Watermark, whilst alternating between two electric guitars. Only then could he hand over the rest of the night to his guest, take a seat on the front row, sit back and enjoy the show.
The Durham-born singer-songwriter and infectious raconteur started his two-hour set with Left Us To Burn, his mid-1980s anti-Thatcher song; although eager to declare that the song has subsequently progressed into an anti-Meryl Streep song. Complete with a tongue-in-cheek homage to Hendrix with a slice of Foxy Lady midway through, the singer soon had the audience in his hands, despite teasing one or two with his mischievous banter. Chatty and thoroughly engaging as his audiences have come to expect, the singer insisted upon drawing out some audience participation right from the start, introducing the room to some fine call and response Gospel singing, courtesy of Joseph Spence's I'm Gonna Live That Life.
After settling into his set, which one suspects didn't necessarily follow any set list to speak of, Martin invited his daughter Phoebe up on stage, the two treating the occasion as an opportunity to have a bit of a jam session, with a little Elvis here, a spot of the Reverend Gary Davis there, by way of a sprinkling of the Shake n' Vac ad, before settling into Crocodile Cryer, a song Martin wrote for Roddy Frame as well as being the opening song to his debut LP BOAT TO BOLIVIA back in 1986.
Name-dropping as if it were going out of fashion, Martin littered his set with references to everyone from Bob Dylan, Roy Buchanan and Wilko Johnson to Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry, each anecdote slightly more bizarre than the previous one. It was good to hear some of his earlier songs in the set, such as Little Red Bottle, Rain and the lounge jazz-inflected Coleen, claiming half jokingly, that the guitar accompaniment he'd borrowed from the Mickey Baker Teach Yourself Jazz Guitar book. Throughout the set, the repertoire flitted between musical genres, including jazz, rockabilly, Doc Watson-styled bluegrass and even reggae, with the Steel Pulse rhythm of Love for the First Time.
It would be amiss of me not to acknowledge the work of the volunteers, all of whom proudly wore their green 'Heeley People's Park' t shirts in recognition of their community project to redevelop the green space just across from the venue. I'm sure this wasn't lost on Martin Stephenson either, who tonight became part of this close-knit community in the spirit of friendship, music and fun. Towards the end of the set, Martin rounded things off with one of his familiar songs Long Forgotten, before returning to the stage for a couple of encores, including Map in the World, which effectively closed the show. I'm pretty sure the Heeley Institute won't forget this evening's concert in a hurry, and all for the right reasons.