I’ve encountered some impressive live music settings over the years, and All Saints’ Church, Wigan, must be up there with the best, however unlikely a venue.
It was clearly an odd call for Boo Hewerdine too, this Cambridgeshire-based singer-songwriter up in Lancashire (yep, few would thank me for suggesting Greater Manchester) just two days after playing the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Yet it was an inspired choice for the latest Acoustic Roots bill, and not only did it seem apt to witness the former frontman of The Bible in such surroundings, but he rose to the occasion, even foregoing the PA system at one stage to make the most of the sonic possibilities.
Whether you picked up on Boo in his Bible days or beyond through his work with and for various feted performers, there’s no disguising the surprise at hearing live that wonderful voice coming from an unassuming big fella with a beard.
There was a concern that the event was a tad too intimate at first, support act The Huers having to entice us into the Crawford Chapel for their set rather than hover awkwardly around the transept.
The Huers are Phil Caffrey and Ian Cleverdon, North West folk roots scene regulars, a likeable, talented guitar pairing alternating between their own songs and acoustically-arranged covers on this occasion.
They finished with Broken Boats, inspired by a visit to Port Isaac, then Steve Tilston and Dave Alvin covers, joined by the main act on the latter, a rendition of King of California.
Boo’s initial seven-song set started in sober circumstances with The Village Bell and The Man That I Am, heartfelt contributions to the Ballads of Child Migration project, helping shine a light on one of the more shameful chapters in the UK’s recent history.
Shortly after playing that second track with a full band on a star-studded bill in South Kensington, here it was in stark voice and guitar format, but just as powerfully-poignant.
Lightening up the mood, his ‘big hit’ followed, Boo telling us how the royalties for Patience of Angels, a success for ex-Fairground Attraction singer Eddi Reader in 1994, helped buy him a shed ‘big enough for the mower’, his congregation helping out with the chorus.
Beyond the touching Old Song we had a track from his most recent collaboration with Chris Difford, Cinderella, the lyrics about a cross-dresser penned by the Squeeze co-founder and the music by Boo, as he was quick to stress.
More understated name-dropping followed, telling us how newly-crowned folk singer of the year Kris Drever covered his next song, the wonderful Harvest Gypsies, before ending with a song from his youth, keeping up the cross-dressing theme with talk of having a ‘trannie’ under his pillow in ‘67 on first hearing The Bee Gees’ I Started a Joke.
After a bottled ale we were back, Boo setting off with Voice Behind the Curtain from his new LP, a lovely track he said he wished he could go back to the ’60s and offer to Dionne Warwick. And writing for other talents is clearly something he thrives on, as proved with the next selection penned for long-time friend Eddi Reader, Dragonflies.
Talking us through his first appearance on BBC talk show Wogan in the ‘80s (‘How many of you have been on Wogan twice?’ he added in mock surly tones, before a wry smile), he recalled safety-pin problems with poor-fitting, hired ‘television trousers’ while performing Honey Be Good with The Bible there. And the evidence is out there to see on the web, with Boo’s legs apart stance something to marvel at.
The Huers returned for the mighty Bell, Book and Candle, apparently used in no less than seven shows where a character dies, including Tricia Dingle’s death by chimney-pot on a stormy night in Emmerdale, Boo telling us, ‘If you don’t make it through this song, thanks for coming anyway’.
Thankfully we all survived, with 2009’s Muddy Water next, accompanied by a comic tale of how he played a live abridged version on Andy Marr’s BBC Sunday morning show that year, followed by the beautifully-melancholic Please Don’t Ask Me To Dance, another Eddi export, before his David Bowie tribute Swimming in Mercury, the title song of his rather splendid new album (more of which later on this site), written with son Ben.
Boo requested the power be switched off then, just that wondrous voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment in this special setting for the touching Sunset, performed ‘au naturel’, as he put it.
I expected the gorgeous Holy Water to finish, given our surroundings, yet the two encores didn’t disappoint, The Bible’s glorious near-hit Graceland followed by one more return for hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck 1999 solo offering Murder in the Dark.
The next Acoustic Roots show features London-based singer-songwriter Lucy Zirins at Wigan’s Old Court Room on Friday, May 17. For more details head here.