Two nights with Tom McRae and a bit about Jesse Malin too, Amsterdam - Melkweg -

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Two very different nights with similar setlists.

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Jesse Malin and Tom McRae, two singer/songwriter's who both play guitar. There the similarities between them end. Jesse is this week's cool guy from New York. He's an ex punk, once touring member of the Ramones and best buddies with Ryan Adams. Then there's Tom McRae, sensitive blokey from Essex. Heart on his sleeve, glass half-empty kind of fella who has drawn comparisons with English folk hero Nick Drake. Let's face it, there's more than just the Atlantic separating these two guys but nevertheless, they share a bill tonight.


 


Jesse's up first and although he's down as a 'special guest' which means he's allowed to play a full 70 minute set, the sound engineers and the audience treat him like any other support act.


The sound is horrible and Jesse's vocal is so low he might as well mime. The audience stare blankly just because they don't know who he is. It's obvious that Jesse Malin fans and Tom McRae fans run in different circles and it's not just them as Jesse admits that he had no idea who Tom was prior to meeting him backstage. He did say he seemed a 'decent kind of fellow' though. So I suppose that's something.


 


Ryan Adams produced Jesse's first solo album, last year's The Fine Art of Self Destruction and from the first listen you can hear his influence all over the place. In fact, it's safe to say this is a much closer and better follow up to Adams' Gold album than last year's outtakes compilation Demolition. The Fine Art... is indeed a fine album and Adams has helped to reinvent Malin quite nicely but judging by the performance tonight, Jesse is still struggling to pull it off live.


 


His performance is by no means bad. There's a wonderful energy and vibrance to his approach, but I got the impression that he's almost limited by these songs. This set of songs are all middle tempo at best but that Ramones fan in him just wants to thrash out. After years of bouncing around playing at a hundred miles an hour, slowing things down doesn't seem to come naturally to him, or his band for that matter.


 


In a strange way though, it adds more of Jesse to the mix and the ghost of Ryan Adams isn't quite as noticeable this evening. Queen of the Underworld seems rather threatening tonight, Riding on the Subway paints a disturbing but enticing picture of his New York life and Brooklyn is fused with a vicious underbelly that changes the mood of the song entirely. On the album when he sings, "If I could only find the words," you can imagine him wanting to tell this mystery girl how much he loves her, and how, if only he'd been able to tell her, she wouldn't have left. Tonight you get the impression he'd like to phone this girl up and call her every name under the sun for chickening out and never understanding him. It's a remarkable transformation and very welcome indeed. It gives a whole new slant on the lyrics and has given the hint that there might be more to this guy than merely being 'a bit like Ryan Adams'.


 


 In fact he seems like a pretty sound kind of guy, full of charm and wit and with a self-deprecating sense of humour that is wonderful to find in a New Yorker. All in all his set was entertaining but somewhat lacking, with Wendy being the unmistakable highlight, if only because it's the one song on the set he can really get his teeth into and rock out on. It's a shame that the sound was so fuzzy but I still think he'd be more comfortable playing these songs acoustic at the moment. Either that or he should get a new band, for I don't think the guys he's playing with really understand where these songs are coming from. I saw enough to give him another chance though. Here's hoping he comes back soon.


 


 


Tom McRae is currently trying to sail along on the ripples his wonderful second album Just Like Blood is causing across Europe. His eponymous debut album garnered him critical acclaim and a Mercury nomination but his second album is easily as good and deserves every ounce of praise it gets. His songs are wonderfully crafted and full of deep, rich lyrics and a calm yet almost melancholy atmosphere that is aimed at the head as much as the heart. All of which is impeccably reproduced onstage.


 


The songs are all performed to perfection with Mermaid Blues hitting its mark like a wall of water. Starting off with Tom's voice alone in the dark the cello comes out of nowhere and builds until it crashes back into silence like a giant wave, before repeating the process. Karaoke Soul seems more playful in nature at first with its pleasant yet forceful strings but the lyrics  (I can see you desperate to please, let me treat you for your disease.) and the pounding drum and bongo rhythms suggest a darker tone. It plays Tom as the master dominating over his pupil. Who's the pupil? Obviously the audience as they're treating him with the utmost respect. The crowd are impeccably behaved, for once there's no chatter by the bar and Tom gets their full attention. They're hanging on his every word, it's just a shame that he doesn't seem very comfortable up there.


 


In between songs every quote is a reference to the current situation in Iraq. This all started earlier with Jesse Malin apologising for George Bush between every song and getting a section of the audience on his side by screaming, "George Bush is a f***ing c**t" but Tom carried this over into his show and, although never as strong in his language, ( the most direct he managed was, "Tony Blair is really annoying,") I sensed the same intensity in his feeling and complete bewilderment at the situation. "I'm unfortunate enough to have voted for Tony Blair. But I didn't just vote for him once, I voted for him twice, which makes me feel like an accomplice." 


 


Despite the political viewpoints flying around the evening didn't quite turn into a Billy Bragg gig and as the night wore on you could sense Tom loosening up a bit. He enjoyed himself enough to play three encores anyway, ending with a wonderful solo stint at the piano for I Ain't Scared of Lightning. The night ended sometime after midnight and I think everyone went home entertained, but it's a shame, however understandable, that the problems of the outside world crept into the Melkweg too.


 


 


 


After a night's rest and a day's work I've now made my way out to the coast, Katwijk to be precise and I'm quite excited about tonight, if only because this venue is a world away from the Melkweg. Scum is a youth club, a hang out for the local skate kids and mischief makers of Katwijk and it's the last place you'd expect to see a concert. The room the band are playing in is tiny, with the stage taking up half the room and I would guess a capacity of 300 at a push, but even so the place isn't even half full. Intimate isn't the word, it's like watching a band play in your living room.


 


The guys take the stage and we applaud as wildly as 70 or 80 people can. I've seen bands play to small crowds before and look pissed off, but not here. The intense faces sported by the band in the Melkweg last night have turned into beaming smiles. "Good evening!" says Tom and we all have time to reply individually before the band are in place and ready to play.


 


The set opens with You Only Disappear and it's a joyous surprise to note that they've taken as much care with the sound in this little room as they did in the Melkweg. Again, it's superb. Karaoke Soul bounds into life next and then Walk to Hawaii follows, getting the night's first (and only) War reference, "This is a song abut lying on the beach and then as you look out, just on the horizon, you see a mushroom cloud. A cloud caused by Tony Blair and George Bush."


 


"Cheers for that Tom!" says some guy at the back and Tom laughs and the atmosphere is restored to it's pleasant level. A few songs later and Tom pulls Streetlight out of the bag. It's amazing to think this song is a b-side! Easily my favourite of all his songs it's a sheer delight. Calm but strong in it's structure, Tom whispers some of his most touching lyrics whilst plucking gently at his guitar and the cello blends in and out like you're catching glimpses of it from a mile away. By the end of it we're all under his spell.


 


The other wonderful thing about tonight is that I can get to and from the bar easily and the beer is dirt cheap – the result being that by the time they near the end of the set I'm completely rat arsed, and so are the rest of the crowd. It's Tom's birthday today and a few people have been nice enough to bring cards and presents, which Tom has placed around the stage. " It's been great to come and play here. It's not often we get to have a day off during a tour, but that's what today's felt like. You know, normally we get off the bus in a different city every day and then play and that's it, but today we get to come here. We've had a walk on the beach, a couple of drinks in the afternoon and it's been wonderful."It's an amazing contrast to see thim so relaxed and open compared to the intense, introverted presence he projected last night. " Anybody been to Brazil?" asks Tom and after chatting with a couple of people who had for a few moments he tells us a story of how he was in Sao Paulo chasing fireworks around town in the hope of finding 'something to smoke' and wrote this song whilst running about like a lunatic. The song was Sao Paulo Rain and it doesn't mention fireworks once. Not that it matters, it's still a great song.


 


Tonight's gig is everything last night was and more. The quality of the playing is astonishing. Clear, precise and impeccably played but there's a wonderful depth and meaning to each of the songs. Every one bears it's heart on it's sleeve and stands confident in doing so. What's most enjoyable tonight though is the atmosphere. The crowd are warmer than last night, despite being smaller and so are the band. I didn't expect a long night, but we're treated to a full 13 song set and then he comes back for an encore. Bloodless is performed solo and shows that the songs from the first album still sound as good next to the new material. The band return for A Day Like Today and Tom says, "I can't imagine the record company will let us play here again, but I'd like to thank Hugo for bringing us out here." I get the impression Hugo is the owner or at least manager of Scum and it's his birthday too! How nice. [correction : turns out his name is Huig; he's not the owner, he's a promoter and he was born in August. So what the hell was I talking about when I wrote this?]


 


The Boy with the Bubblegun rounds off the encore and is another highlight. Soaring into an intense climax it brings the night to a fitting conclusion. Or so I thought as I went once more to the bar. The band came offstage and joined the crowd for a drink and as I'm looking around for Tom he comes back on stage and takes his seat by the piano for two more songs. After that he's finally finished. He doesn't wander backstage, just climbs down into the crowd to find a beer. Like I said, Intimate isn't the word. Although last night was good, tonight's been so much better. I've had a great time and I can tell that the band have too, but how the hell do I get home?


 


Words : Damian Leslie