Ralph McTell is a master of intimacy. He gathers you in, drawing you closer to listen to his songs of passion and loss, and his wry social commentary.
His timeless songs have earned him a loyal fan base over nearly fifty years of recording and touring, and producing more than 350 recorded songs.
Sadly, McTell could not play them all last night, but his conversational set combined old favourites like 'Tequila Sunset' with songs from his latest album, One More for the Road. 'In the Dreamtime' masterfully evoked Aboriginal ideas about the passing of time, and was used by Billy Connolly for his televised Australian tour. McTell paid tribute on the night to their ‘long-distance’ relationship, ‘even saying his name makes me laugh’.
McTell’s rich bass and baritone notes are thrilling, and when combined with virtuoso guitar playing, make for a beautiful, melodic delivery. Modest about his own musical ability, his admiration for old blues masters, such as the Rev Gary Davies (Reverend Thunder) was showcased by his complex blues-style finger-picking techniques. When he played his twelve string, it was easy to picture him sharing the stage at the Isle of Wight Festival with Jimi Hendrix in 1970.
‘When a man knows how many guitars he owns … [he knows] they all have different voices, different sounds. That sound stimulates the ideas of a song, of a mood.’
Poignantly reminding the audience that it was Remembrance Sunday, he recalled with fondness and humour family members who had fought in the two World Wars - ‘The beer was expensive but the laughter was free’ - and delivered a superb version of ‘The Lost Boys’, which combined acute psychological observation with sharp social comment.
‘These young men, who don’t recognise the edge of risk, are seen as a social nuisance in peacetime. Put them in uniform, and it’s the same qualities which carry them to the front.’
A technically simple setup comprising three guitars and a single mike, McTell’s performance at the cosy North Wall theatre was reminiscent of early folk clubs. Yet here is a performer who can fill the Albert Hall or Sydney Opera House.
Ballads like ‘The London Apprentice’ told stories, while ‘Let Me Down Easy’ was simple and heartfelt. ‘Streets of London’ made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and was still timely.