After the usual greetings, Richard Hawley issued the battle cry: "Let's ballad!" Heartfelt and serious in its baritone delivery, last Monday's show featured all that is good about Hawley. Lady's Bridge, released in late 2007, dominated the set while the Mercury-nominated Cole's Corner featured heavily too.
He opened with the new single, "Valentine", before moving on to "Roll River Roll", a song about the flooding of Sheffield in the 19th century. Another song that takes Sheffield's past as a starting point, "Cole's Corner" (a traditional city-centre meeting place, long gone), followed.
Hawley mines a wealth of material from his hometown roots that he delivers along a shifting path of country & western, folk, and rockabilly. "Dark Road" is a lonesome-cowboy song delivered with a misty-eyed soulfulness punctuated by a big guitar riff. It could sound corny, but in Hawley's hands, it doesn't.
There's a no-nonsense air about Hawley that comes from his staunch working-class roots. And his songs, though founded in emotional reaction, are far from sentimental froth and show a range that their initial appearance belies. "Tonight, the Streets Are Ours" is a case in point: a song with a deceptively breezy keyboard theme, it's a mix of social criticism and romance about a yearning to escape the Asbo culture that makes areas of towns no-go zones. "Serious" takes a rockabilly trip around the nature of love, while "Hotel Room", at first a traveller's lament for his absent love, is in fact a story of drug addiction.
Hawley's journey from contented collaborator with artists such as Nancy Sinatra, Hank Marvin and Jarvis Cocker to leader of the pack has been one of slow word-of-mouth promotion. He cuts an unusual figure as a "pop star" and he's admitted that it wasn't until he realised you didn't need a planet-sized ego that he accepted the responsibility of being the front man. And he handles the role well.
Analogies with Roy Orbison and Hawley's own self-deprecating epithet of "that speccy twat from Sheffield" go some way to showing the measure of the man: he's the joker, the ordinary bloke down the pub. Nevertheless, in his writing and delivery he is deadly serious; and in this combination the audience felt secure with someone honest and sincere about what he does.
He ended the show with a three-song encore, two of which are covers: Rick Nelson's "Lonesome Town" and Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (dedicated to his late father), pay tribute to Hawley's roots – and their affection shows through.
Phil Bilzon, Disability employment coach, Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire