Billy McCarthy’s life means material isn’t a problem, if you survive it. The suicide of his brother James in Folsom Prison and suffering of his schizophrenic mother were known motivations for his band Augustines, and their heart-pumping, tear-wringing gigs. The UK solo, troubadour tour that began tonight demonstrates that doesn’t skim the surface of a jaw-dropping, knockabout odyssey which seems bohemian only in retrospect.
“This here show has been living in my brain for years,” McCarthy says. It pulsed in gorgeous journals of words, mementos and art, projected behind him, which when he started writing furiously in them became a “beacon”, lighting his way forward. A freestyled summary of his starved bouncing around the world before he ever started Augustines’ music is full of awful hilarity. Visiting James in Folsom wearing a skimpy red maternity dress to meet arcane regulations typically combines the inhumanity of the powerful, and comedy from remembered tragedy.
McCarthy often sings unamplified. His own tearful, healing songs, “Now You Are Free” especially, show how much rock’n’roll can still give when the singer has absorbed so many blows, and stands back up to roar the lessons out.