Few musicians can capture – and critique – what it means to be human as beautifully and articulately as folk singer-songwriter Will Varley.
I first came across Varley when Northern Soul made our annual film at Head for the Hills (formerly Ramsbottom Festival) in Lancashire and I was nervously trying to gather intel before chatting to him on camera. Buoyed by an appreciative (and well-lubricated) crowd, I quickly forgot about our impending interview and enjoyed every second of Varley’s set.
Varley’s Spirit of Minnie tour is his first with an accompanying band. I wasn’t sure how a live band would work with Varley’s usual acoustic set but, instead of drowning him out and distracting from a brilliant vocal, the added instrumental gives his songs added depth and poignancy.
After a couple of pints and a terrible round of pool in the Student Union (I haven’t set foot in Manchester’s Club Academy in about 10 years and, as we head to lower-ground floor, I have this overwhelming feeling of having stumbled into a time machine), my friend and I decide to catch one of the support acts.
“I really like that fella’s voice,” says my friend as we snake our way through the crowd, clutching overpriced beer firmly in our mitts (what is about music venues and serving the worst beer at elevated prices?). I catch a glimpse of a long-haired guy with a guitar whose voice is reminiscent of the lead in a 90s grunge band – sort of gravelly and soft at the same time – although the band is more soul/Americana than rock. Ida Mae, a two-piece comprised of married couple Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean, are a real talent and certainly ones to watch. With stunning vocals, melodic guitar riffs and an ethereal stage presence, we were a little disappointed to have missed most of their set.
The crowd suitably warmed up, it’s finally time for Varley to take centre stage. At first, he appears almost nervous, but he easily commands the attention of an audience. Much like the delightful (and hilarious) Beans on Toast (one of this reviewer’s biggest crushes), it’s this laid-back, paired-down attitude which allows the music to speak for itself, and for Varley to shine. He’s humble throughout, joking that previous trips up north have been to smaller venues like Antwerp Mansion and the Northern Quarter’s Castle Hotel.
It’s artists like Varley who are bringing British folk music back into the mainstream consciousness. No longer a genre which conjures up sea shanties (although, who doesn’t love a good sea shanty?), country festivals and old men with beards playing harmonicas, it’s reclaiming their rightful place on our Spotify playlists.
The wonderful thing about a tour promoting a brand new album is the chance to hear new music for the first time. While firm fan-favourites like The Man Who Fell to Earth (I swear that every time I listen to this song, it becomes more beautiful), Seize the Night, From Halcyon and Weddings and Wars have the crowd going, newer songs receive a similar reception. Occasionally, an artist’s latest offerings can disappoint but not Varley’s tunes.
The hilarious I Got this Email is a firm crowd-pleaser with Varley joking that the song is now so old, he’s had to make countless changes to the politicians mentioned (although it’s bloody funny with Theresa May now thrown into the mix) and there’s not a single person who doesn’t chant the chorus of We Don’t Believe You.
King for a King takes on extra significance when Varley announces that not only is he now a married man, but his new wife is also expecting a baby. There’s a line in the song where he sings “well, take it all easy, boy, you can’t be lazy/ watch out, son, you’ve got a baby, oh” and the crowd sing it back to him with glee to which he looks genuinely chuffed.
Once you hear Varley play, that’s it, you’re a life-long fan. There’s something about his honesty and razor-sharp observations of what it’s like to just be – to exist as an everyday person – that are so astute, so thoughtful and so universal, it’s hard not to appreciate every word with immense joy and understanding.
Listening to his lyrics is akin to looking at your reflection – you recognise yourself in an instant. He’s also a bloody nice bloke.
Images by Andrew Allcock
Will Varley is touring the UK until February 9, 2018. For more information click here.
Spirit of Minnie is available to pre-order now.
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Will Varley, click here.