Richard Hawley, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

There's a distinct family atmosphere in the Shepherd's Bush Empire tonight. From the balcony, the old music hall glitters with the shiny bald heads of Richard Hawley's devotees. People have come with their wives and husbands, their grown-up children; the man sitting in front of me has even brought his grandson, who looks all of seven years old. It's a far cry from Hawley's earlier incarnation as the guitarist of Nineties indie also-rans The Longpigs; or, indeed, of his days with Pulp. Because after he pulled 2005's Coles Corner out of the bag, Hawley is now the star of the show - and like his friend Jarvis Cocker, he's hit the big time at an age when most have long given up.

Hawley receives a thunderous reception as he takes to the stage in front of a giant, sparkling "RH" sign, dapper as ever in a casual suit and specs, and launches into the Roy Orbison-esque slow dance of "Born Under a Bad Sign". Two thousand or so heads bob in appreciation. Next up, a languorous B-side is aired: "If we fuck it up, I'm really sorry," he says - it's played to perfection. But it's between the songs that he really wins us over.

At one point, he verbalises the old cliché himself: you can take the man out of Sheffield, but you can't take Sheffield out of Richard Hawley. Pointing at the glistening initials behind him, he quips, "How fucking gay is that? We bought it off Rolf Harris." Without missing a beat, he follows with the lilting hula romance of "Hotel Room", complete with a Hawaiian guitar breakdown. The crowd laps it up. "You like that one?" asks Hawley. "I think it's crap!"

There are two sides to Richard Hawley. On the one hand, there's the romantic, bequiffed old fool who sings heart-breaking, nostalgic love songs; on the other, there's the no-nonsense, wise-cracking Yorkshireman who just wants to make you laugh. He knows it himself, when he introduces "The Ocean" in his inimitable manner: "I wrote this for my wife because I've officially gone soft as a bag of tits."

Either way, Hawley's a timeless songwriter and a natural showman. Bathed in blue and green light, he plays "Darling Wait For Me" as if the song had existed since the dawn of time (or at least since the 1950s). He's also a pretty incredible guitarist - a hangover from his days as a session player - and each time he plays a solo, he steps back from the microphone, blending into his backing band. Not that he ever forgets the team of seasoned musicians ("my friends") who stand behind him, even getting someone to bring out a birthday cake for guitarist Shez Sheridan. The audience starts to sing "Happy Birthday", and Hawley stops us short: "You daft buggers!"

There's a reason for his good mood: Coles Corner just received a gold disc. Ten years ago, when he was touring the world with The Longpigs, playing second fiddle to Crispin Hunt, nobody could have foreseen this - and he seems genuinely grateful: "I'll stop being a dick for just a minute, because we all really appreciate it." Sincerity and happiness spreads round the venue like wildfire; by the time the album's title track is aired, husbands are putting their arms around their wives, grandpas round grandsons.

The gig was a celebration of sorts. A celebration of the fact that sometimes people do make it on their own terms. It's taken years for Richard Hawley to come this far, but he's here to stay.

l.sauma@independent.co.uk

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