For a while, real stardom seemed to beckon Ed Harcourt. His debut EP in 2000, Maplewood, introduced a Tom Waits-worshipping, 23-year-old prodigy.
The album that followed, Here Be Monsters, was Mercury-nominated, and gave him a more widescreen and fascinating role, as an exotic, sometimes self-destructive troubadour. There has been no big breakthrough in the decade since. Instead, Harcourt has settled into the margins, an enduring, always welcome romantic.
He sees out the last night of 2011 in the back room of a north London pub which once regularly launched careers, headlining Club Fandango’s New Year’s Eve party. It’s a nicely old-fashioned affair, with an irritable landlord and plates of crisps on the bar. Benjamin Folke Thomas, a handsome folk singer with an unlikely middle name, Cavalier beard, and deep, mellow voice, makes an early impression, digging into the American Civil War for themes.
In the back room, dots of red and green light slowly swirl, in magically disorienting, post-Christmas trippiness. Harcourt arrives at his piano in a quickly dishevelled cream suit, delayed by the loss of a trombone in a cab. He opens with the optimistic “Watching the Sun Come Up”, then switches to guitar for “Church of No Religion”. “I don’t need an angel to change my mind,” he declares. When an inattentive New Year reveller shouts, he wonders, “Do we have a Catholic in the house?”
The edge of the unhinged in Harcourt at his best arrives with “I’ve Become Misguided.” “I’m afraid of my own shadow, it’s always following me” he confides, mouth behind an old-fashioned microphone grill, which looks like Hannibal Lecter’s metal muzzle. He slides to the floor on his back, whacking a tambourine, his Tom Waits blues bark returning. He’s back on his feet for “She Fell Into My Arms”, in which he boasts: “I’ve burned all my traveller’s cheques”. The romantic wanderer of this lyric finds a home in “Shanghai”, a reliable, piano-pounding showstopper. Harcourt finishes it tinkling the keys as if at cocktail hour in the tropics, where his suit would fit right in.
The gig’s been held together by gaffer tape at times, too heavy on nervously ironic asides, but a shaky reminder of what Harcourt can do. When 2012 is counted in, a girl starts singing along with the DJ’s “Brown Sugar”. Harcourt is already gone, a restless man on the move.