Ducking beneath the rumbling railway arches and skulking down to the side door of Manchester’s Gorilla always brings with it a sneaking feeling of mystery. It feels as though this small room, tucked away behind a bright, thriving bar, is a gateway to some dark underworld where magical things may be afoot.
Tonight’s adventure came with the sense that this was something of a resurrection. After disappearing from public life for nearly 10 years, soulful singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell was set to grace the stage once more.
The seemingly understated demeanour of the night’s main support, recent EMI signing George O’Hanlon, meant that, when he first took to the stage, backlit by honey-coloured lights that drenched the room in a palpable warmth, it took at least half a minute for most of the packed-out room to notice he had arrived. However, it took only one line of the opening song for heads to whip round to face the stage, the excitable babbling dying away the second the first shimmering note came ringing out with all the smooth richness of melted butter.
Aged just 21, there is a depth and soul to O’Hanlon’s voice that far exceeds his years. His ability to balance pure, clean melodies while still ensuring that every word is punctuated through with potency and diction is a testament to his innate musicianship.
As the smoke danced in the spotlight, a thick blanket of silence descended on the dark room, the better to hear intimate storytelling on tracks like The Weight which ebbed and flowed through the venue like a quiet perfume. This atmosphere of heady tenderness was broken only when O’Hanlon addressed the audience, initially to promote his next Manchester appearance, though he promptly forgot the date and the venue for the show, drawing endearing chuckles from the crowd. Despite that moment of youthful folly, O’Hanlon is every inch an old soul, and seems to draw his light-touch musical craft from somewhere much deeper and richer than most young adults can attain in a little over two decades of life.
Following an impressive supporting artist can be a musician’s worst nightmare. However, after so long mysteriously absent from the spotlight (and reportedly spending some of that time washing dishes in a Brighton Wetherspoon’s pub), Stephen Fretwell’s return to the stage had been much-anticipated.
Embodying the true meaning of the term enigmatic, Fretwell is an impossibly lanky figure, who twitches and shakes as he rocks back and forth through every pitch and fall in opening number, Do You Want to Come With?. Eyes closed and head tipped towards the ceiling, it was as if he couldn’t bear to look at the audience, choosing instead to lose himself in the melody as opposed to facing the expectant sea of eyes before him.
He needn’t have worried. As he played, the silence was so complete that you could hear a pin drop. But, the second the final note rang out, the room erupted into applause, whoops and cheers which went on for such a long time that even Fretwell seemed overcome with unexpected emotion.
From there, he sunk into his place on stage with all the ease and familiarity associated with slipping on a pair of old leather shoes. His vocals were as steady and clear as flowing water and, even when he pulled away from the microphone to control the melancholy softness of his voice, every word rolled out with emotion and was delicacy balanced to perfection.
Fretwell’s most iconic tracks, Emily and Run, the latter being best known as the theme tune to the popular sitcom Gavin & Stacey, were both present and correct, though they didn’t occupy the prominence in the set that you might expect. On the contrary, when the latter’s opening chords began, it took most of the room the majority of the first verse to recognise it, proving that these shows are, primarily, for passionate lovers of Fretwell’s entire discography.
Drawing the audience in still further, a chorus of haunting harmonising from the crowd provided an undulating backdrop to his newer tracks before he invited a member of the audience on stage to provide surprisingly impressive harmonies on Rose. As his invited guest made to leave the stage, he roused the crowd into a storm of appreciative cheers, leaving a bashful Fretwell looking deeply moved and more than a little embarrassed at being lauded such praise.
Wending his way towards the end of the set, and as the body of his guitar swung up to meet the light, thousands of finger marks over its surface were thrown into sharp relief. A perfect metaphor for how many lives his music has touched and how much of himself Fretwell pours into each performance.
Even after almost a decade away from the spotlight, those who have been moved and inspired by his music have returned to see him in their thousands, proving that he is a man who has been sorely missed.
Images courtesy of Clay Henry Films