“I’m tired,” Josh T. Pearson says. “It’s been a long life. I don’t even know what day of the week it is…” Someone in the crowd tells him the day and the date. “Friday the 13th?” he wryly muses, as if his life has been full of nothing but such days of potential reckoning in the ten long years since his band Lift To Experience released their fearsome album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, and soon after blew apart. That record imagined humanity making its last stand in Texas during the apocalypse. Pearson’s eventual follow-up Last Of The Country Gentlemen considers a recent relationship in similar terms. There’s the rare sense tonight of every bitter, funny, helpless word mattering, because they’re being pulled up from a harrowing place and being relived on stage.
Pearson’s a big, lean, bearded Texan, who’d be imposing if he wasn’t so soft-spoken, funny and bashfully apologetic. Right until he starts singing, anyway. “OK, here we go, thank y’all,” is all the warning we get. “Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ” then reads the riot act to a woman, letting her know the unhappy place their relationship’s at. “Woman When I’ve Raised Hell” describes a state of brewing violence, but it becomes obvious he’s dangerous because he’s a straying, pathetic man, cornered and raging because he’s in the wrong. “I said honestly…” he murmurs wretchedly, trying to clamber out of the hole he’s dug. His hand evenly strokes his hugely amped acoustic guitar. “Are there any ladies here?” he enquires a little later. “Run!” he advises them, darkly.
“I come from a long line in a history of dreamers,” Pearson begins “Country Dumb”, “each one more tired than the one before.” It could be the anthem for a certain sort of bottom-barrel American loser, and there are echoes as he strums of some old Dixie standard. Eyes shut, he sways away from the microphone, then walks up to it, smashing the guitar as he explains: “There are reasons I was alone when I met you…” Around this suddenly fragile-looking man in a white T-shirt the venue’s gone dark. On a Friday night, every single person in it’s silently listening. Pearson’s absently playing chords one-handed on the guitar’s neck as he finishes. The applause hardly seems to reach him, making you think of Dylan’s comment on Blood On The Tracks: “A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It’s hard for me to relate to people enjoying that kind of pain.”
After one final song, though, “Thou Art Loosed”, the wave of cheers really touches Pearson. It’s good he gets some reward, beyond the couple of people every night who thank him because they’ve been though something similar and his songs really help. The idea that got a lot of us into rock music, that there’s something at stake in it beyond showbiz and a pretty tune, burns as strongly as it ever has afterwards. Pearson apologises for missing a previous Club Uncut – legal problems, apparently – but this one will be remembered for a long time.
Villagers, who wrap things up around half-midnight, draw an even bigger crowd. Conor O’Brien is a poor man’s Conor Oberst to some, but is more clearly part of a lineage you can trace back to the late ‘60s poetic streams of Van Morrison and Neil Young. “Becoming A Jackal”, up for an Ivor Novello this week, remains the fine song it was when it came out a year ago on the album Villagers are still promoting, but there are enough new songs tonight to suggest O’Brien would rather be moving on, and his band are fiery.
Earlier, Heavenly-signed English husband and wife duo Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou offer one really gripping song, “The Stargazers’ Gutter”. Allusive and historical (it seems to take in the whole ‘60s bohemian generation’s fate), it gives its characters and listeners healing shelter from the storm it describes. “England” is similarly ambitious, but disappoints by comparison. Before them, Dean McPhee’s treated guitar instrumentals find him banging the back of its neck which makes a sound like a clanging iron door, and conjuring whale-song echoes. “Calming,” Josh Pearson approvingly comments, watching from the crowd. Afterwards, though, it’s hard to remember anyone but him.