Young Sussex-born singer-songwriter steps up to the next level with best live show to date

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Strangers In Paradise

Ed Harcourt

LOCK 17, LONDON

Tuesday August 17, 2004

There’s a scorched, soulful Tom Waits rasp in Ed Harcourt’s voice tonight, possibly as a result of being a late-night soldier of rock on tour, but more probably because he’s become a talent to rival rather than aspire to his heroes. If, a year ago, he was still too honestly temperamental, mucking about and making self-deprecating, very English remarks between songs to release tension, now he’s infinitely more focused, channelling his Tigger-ish energies into exquisite renditions of his darkly optimistic songs. Old favourites are mixed in with tracks from the new opus Strangers here, and a packed house, in which somehow every single individual appears to be his long-lost best friend (he’s a sociable type), is raucously supportive. With due cause: all agree this may be his best gig yet. The encore, of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darling Be Home Soon”, has grown men weeping and weeping men growing.

As Harcourt switches between keyboards, guitars and multiple mics, musicians emerge from the wings on a horses-for-courses basis, and it works wonderfully, lifting or layering the mood as required. Album producer Jari Haapalainen plays percussion, while members of the Magic Numbers offer vocals. Gita Langley’s subtle violin adorns the quieter ballads and trumpeter Jerry Atkins causes my first words to him to be, “Sir, you are a demigod”.

Harcourt half-hits like “Misguided”, “Undertaker Strut” and “Apple Of My Eye” raise the temperature; debuting dreamscapes like “The Trapdoor” and “The Music Box” muster the melancholy. Ed apologises for playing new stuff, then correctly retracts the apology. After “This One’s For You” and the blissful “Black Dress”, he beams, “That’s a love song.”

The comedic monologues still make cameo appearances: among the most memorable are “Michael McDonald: now there’s a man with a beard you can trust”, and “Pipe down ? that’d be funny at a football match, but not here.” The occasional Austin Powers yell of “Yeah, baby!” follows any particularly pleasing executions of intricacy and intimacy. Strangers, though, is the work of a serious, oddly un-British gift, and it’s almost startling to be reminded, via “Born In The ’70s”, that he’s a “young whippersnapper”.

The absence of “Metaphorically Yours” has your intoxicated reviewer unfairly whingeing afterwards, but it’s a euphoric concert, which sees a once-promising artist arrive as a unique voice and vessel for greatness. That the van gets broken into later and half the gear nicked is a crying shame, but you can’t have everything.