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John Bramwell: The Cluny, Newcastle – Live Review


John Bramwell
The Cluny, Newcastle
8th June 2024

Britain’s finest musical wordsmith winds up his extensive UK tour with a gig of two halves: dark songs of drinking and disaster from his time with I Am Kloot and harmony-drenched songs of happiness and hope from his solo repertoire.

“Hello, Geordies!” beams the diminutive figure with the mane of grey hair. “I’m going to do the gig tonight on a stool,” he announces, perching with his acoustic guitar: “John Bramwell – the Val Doonican years.”

He’s still cackling as he remarks how “frightening” it is that most of the equally greying audience responds to the reference. The Mancunian formerly known as Johnny Dangerously, erstwhile frontman of I Am Kloot, a songwriter once described to me with uncanny accuracy as “the poet laureate of romantic disappointment,” used to presage his performances with the promise of playing us “songs of drinking and disaster.”

Not any more.

As he approaches his 60th birthday, it’s exactly a decade since Kloot made their triumphant last stand at the 2014 Meltdown Festival curated by their friend Guy Garvey. As his contented smile confides, John Bramwell today is a very different man. A happy man in a happy place.

Where once songs like the old Kloot favourite Twist (“There’s blood on your legs / I love you”) and Because (“Kill me before you die / ‘Cause I love you”) delved deep into the darkness and disappointment of dysfunctional relationships and celebrated alcoholic oblivion in songs like Proof (“Could you stand another drink? / I’m better when I don’t think”) and To The Brink, Bramwell now lives on a barge with his beloved dog Henry, coming ashore to sing hymns to the natural world expressing the joy of being alive.

Not so much drinking and disaster as happiness and hope; less fucking and fighting, more loving and laughter.

Tonight on Tyneside it’s the 42nd and final date of a UK tour and Bramwell is demob happy, which means he’s mining the Kloot back catalogue before being joined by his new bandmates Dave and Andy Fidler to create the Full Harmonic Trio. But first… he begins on his stool with a solo rendition of Bigger Wheels from the first Kloot album a quarter of a century ago. “Your dim and dismal love’s gone rotten / Grim and greedy and best forgotten.”

Not exactly loving and laughter; not yet.

No sooner has he finished the first song than he’s announcing how pleased he is with his performance so far, and in particular his guitar playing: rightly so, for Bramwell’s delicate fingerpicking is an underrated counterpoint to his more widely recognised lyrical prowess. “How much was it tonight – £25? I could walk off now!” The packed audience laughs nervously as he slides off his stool. But it’s all right. He’s done that joke before – in fact, we were there to write about it, back in 2021 in Hebden Bridge. We were there a year later in Northwich, too, when he actually did walk off and offer a refund.

“The thing about my jokes,” he chuckles, “is they’re not jokes.”

Bramwell promises plenty of new songs but before he does that he raids the depths of the Kloot catalogue – We Believe, To The Brink, I Still Do, Mouth On Me, 86 TVs and the glorious From Your Favourite Sky. Among them is a song so new that it hasn’t yet been recorded. When The Lights Go Out is a poignant tribute to the late Bryan Glancy, Bramwell’s bandmate in his first group, The Mouth, and part of a nascent Manchester scene that included Guy Garvey and David Gray. Glancy, who died 18 years ago, was the one who didn’t make it; the one who inadvertently created Kloot by taking an unannounced three-week holiday a week before The Mouth began a tour.

All that seems a long time ago when Bramwell is joined in turn by his younger accomplices Andy Fidler, adding gentle percussion and harmonies, and Andy’s brother Dave on electric bass and more harmonies. The singer’s longstanding lyrical leitmotifs – skies and stars – remain but you’d be hard pressed to imagine Bramwell in bygone days, one foot aggressively placed on a beer crate, singing an uplifting hymn to A World Full Of Flowers – not without a thorn bringing blood to the surface.

Others such as I Am The Sky, the soppily romantic It’s Just You and The Light Fantastic have a simplicity and beauty that owe as much to the English Romantic poets as Lennon and McCartney, enhanced by those three-part harmonies that recall Crosby, Stills & Nash; even the Blackpool-born Nash’s previous band The Hollies. Not that it’s all flowers and sunshine: Bramwell may be “lying on a bed of roses” but there are ominous portents overhead in A Sky Full Of Thunder And Lightning. They’re never far away, like love and disaster. “That’s where the pleasure lies,” he once told me. “On the crux, just before the pain.”

Watching him weave between the two sides of a repertoire now spanning 30 years, I realise it’s not that he’s changed direction – his wondrous way with words is undiminished, and the argument for him being Britain’s greatest lyricist remains valid – but rather that his journey has taken a different path as the years passed. As he says of his former band: “We never split up. We just went on different roads. And it felt good.”

But for all that, and for all the uplifting joie-de-vivre of those new songs, it’s the Kloot classic Northern Skies that gets the whole room singing along like a festival crowd with their eyes closed and their arms in the air. And, as closing time approaches, it’s the timeless drinking song Proof that carries us home into the night as we join Bramwell to sing a song that, in its final words, poses the biggest existential question of all: “Who am I / Without you?”

~

More of John Bramwell at his website.

More of Tim Cooper’s writing at his Louder Than War author’s archive and at Muck Rack. He posts music daily at EatsDrinksAndLeaves.com.

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