Short, uplifting show by Darren Hayman and four-piece band

Darren Hayman

Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament, The Vortex, Dalston, November 5 2012:

At a loose end on Monday, I checked out the listings for The Vortex in Dalston. It’s my favourite small venue in London, but I’m not a fan of the wild and squonking free-form jazz they often play there.

Luckily, Monday night was a departure… a live showcase for a new album by the defiantly non-jazzy Darren Hayman.

Darren used to front a successful indie band called Hefner but they passed me by completely. Until the day of the gig I’d never heard a single note of his music.

However, the new tracks sounded pretty good on his website and a phone call to The Vortex secured the last two £12 tickets for his show.

What followed was a short but uplifting performance by Darren and a four-piece band: piano, violin, bass, drums plus the man himself on battered four-string guitar.

About half the setlist came from his new album The Violence, released the same day. Its 20 songs were all inspired by the 17th Century Essex witch trials… the Witchfinder General, innocent women hanged, the English Civil War and all that.

With explanations from Darren between songs, this was a history lesson you could hum. A refreshing change of subject matter from most pop music, to be sure, but it was still the love songs that cut through.

Most affecting of all was a number called Vinegar Tom, a lament addressed to a puzzled little dog by his one-legged mistress moments before he sees her swing on the gallows. Add to that poignant scenario a lovely melody you can’t shake out of your head and my goodness you’ve got a good song.

Then there was Henrietta Maria, a declaration of love from King Charles I to his unpopular French wife. And the tale of Rebecca West, voiced by an unknown admirer to the “witch” who pointed the finger at all the rest, including her own mother.

The second half of the gig was a selection of tracks from Darren’s post-Hefner career. Titles like The Winter Makes You Want Me More and I Taught You How To Dance are intriguing in themselves, and he has the knack of writing tunes that linger in the memory. We were still singing the chorus of Big Fish (“Don’t want to be a big fish in a little pond any more”) as we drove home through Harlow, the place that inspired it.

What did it all sound like? I could hear similarities with Kevin Rowland’s more slow and thoughtful songs for Dexys. And Darren’s voice has a Neil Tennant/Al Stewart quality to it, though he aims for high notes that neither would attempt. He usually misses, but that’s all part of the charm.

No need to take my word for it. You can stream the whole of The Violence at http://www.hefnet.com, and there are stacks of older tracks, song videos, artwork, video diaries and making-of features too. I’m looking forward to discovering a lot more.

Oh, and if you’ve never been to The Vortex, give it a go. The sound is warm and welcoming and the people are too. See http://www.vortexjazz.co.uk

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