MUDKISS FANZINE

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BENJAMIN FRANCIS LEFTWICH / DAN CROLL/ STRAWHOUSES / FALLEN LEAF / LAURA JAMES @ MOJO, LIVERPOOL 01/11/2011- BY CHUMKI BANERJEE

 
Since interviewing Benjamin Francis Leftwich for Mudkiss, his honest, intelligent, witty answers left me wanting to hear the boy, for he is still flushed with youth, in person, so I looked forward to the Liverpool stop on his tour to promote new album, 'Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm'. Mojo, better known for bands, none the less proved an admirably sound friendly venue for a largely acoustic night, conjuring an atmosphere of musical gathering in forest glen, commencing with four Liverpool support acts.

Laura James, a gentle start, golden haired nymph with guitar, hummingbird spinning fragile tales of life and love, her sweetly shy stance reminiscent of Mary Hopkins. www.myspace.com/songsabouttheweather

Fallen Leaf, wood sprite a.k.a. Joe Keelan, emphatically strummed and reworked traditional folksongs such as 'The Blacksmith'. Sadly, Joe's interpretations of these well loved melodies were defeated by level of chatter emanating from a crowd who were obviously focused on top billing and an ever cranked sound level which resulted in frustrated, increasingly incomprehensible cacophony, a shame for what could have been gentle flurry of autumn colour. www.facebook.com/fallenleafmusic

Strawhouses, usually electric Indie, stripped down to distinctive, in voice and features, duo of Paul Donnelly and Chris Smith, double whammy of extraordinarily zealous acoustic guitars and vocals, featuring songs from their recently released CD, 'These Are The Willing'. Led by intrigue to listen to band versions of their songs uncovered a Liverpool gem, ironically subtleties, balance and vocal nuances hidden by unremittingly tortured acoustic interpretation, which missed the flowing, flexible bass speak of Michael Bradshaw but led me to a band I will go to see again, in their more normal guise. www.myspace.com/strawhouses

Dan Croll and his band of merry men were surprise of the night. Fresh from winning the  Musicians Benevolent Fund songwriting award earlier this year, the stage looked like it had been set for them, scattered with their tools of trade, lurking drums, lounging electric, elegantly slimmed, yet still curvaceous double bass, supplemented by miniaturised accordion, incalcitrant keyboard, electric and acoustic guitars and clean flexible, accomplished vocals, in perfect polyphony, A Capella style but with instruments, telling wittily well observed and tender tales, snippets of ordinary lives, such as 'Closer', "...move closer so I can see you when you sleep..." and 'Home', "....forgotten how it feels....carpet, polyester fibres wrap around my feet...feels like home... when you are down and alone...it's the train that brings you home..."

A polished performance of a highly musical and lyrically engaging suite of atmospheric, reflective, beautifully narrated modern day folktales. www.facebook.com/dancroll

Dan Croll and his band disassemble and dissolve before our eyes as the crowd press forth, suspend breath in anticipation of Benjamin Francis Leftwich. An acolyte with vestige of familial visage paves the way before crouching reverentially side stage, faithful Samwise to his Frodo.  Stage set, two lone acoustic guitars, polished with patina of love, shyly nonplussed, hesitantly wait to be plucked from their stands, brought to vibrant life under caressing fingers of their master, hiatus away, who materialises on stage to slowly unfold gossamer butterfly wings from creased , crumpled chrysalis, rainbow colours glow, capture moths below, captivated audience raise their heads as one, caught in the shimmer of Benjamin Francis Leftwich's voice. For a Tuesday, even during Liverpool Music Week, the venue is unusually packed, with an unfamiliar and youthful crowd, sprinkled with Liverpool musicians and I assume Dan's L.I.P.A. following, as mobile phones are raised in united salute, it is clear that Benjamin Francis Leftwich has accumulated a mesmerised following.

Appropriate name for young pioneer, troubadour ventured forth from York, guitar and voice sole possessions, purveying poignant tales of life and love in return for board and lodging, well that is what it seemed seeing Benjamin, mid tour, woollen beanie hat pulled low over furrowed brow, raised pale and solitary above the crowd in this former abandoned stable, long and narrow, packed audience funnelled, crammed together like horses seeking the warmth of Benjamin's presence. Unencumbered of band members, huddled ashen, this small figure looked lost until breath of his songs wafted whispering from a mouth wreathing enchantment, engulfing , enticing, owning the stage, transfixing fans. Benjamin's softly gruff, peat smoked voice and simple yet beautifully constructed songs, could suffer from lack of tonal and melodic variation, their persistent sweetness cloying but  an intensely charming, vulnerably honest delivery moves them from soporific to hypnotic, coaxing even the most resistant to where gentle waters flow like balm over troubled souls.

Well worn formulas inform each song, variations on a common theme, rotating round short emotive musical phrases, three or four note arpeggios, melodic minor thirds, resolving sevenths add poignancy, sweetly picked under gently strummed chords stitched together by this underplay of their constituent parts, leaning, lilting on heartstring tug of repeated, metronome root, classic ingredients in the right hands to capture emotion and atmosphere, lilting, gentle, clearly enunciated, poetic vocal melody floats over, softly merged colours of the mind in rain washed pastel, ephemeral glimpses into dreams and thoughts of Benjamin Leftwich. Tonight's set features acoustic versions of nine songs from Benjamin's latest album 'Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm', a fairly new song ' Break the Day' and an old number, 'Maps'. Though the album uses other instruments for coloration, all songs stand for themselves acoustically and though some only reveal sketches for dreamscapes playing in Benjamin's head, recurring themes, faith, love, lust, hope, realisation, ways of the mind, human nature are considered with touching wonderment tinged with wistfulness, though sometimes dulcet tones belie a more cynical punch clothed in velvet glove.

Kicking off with '1904', "...all our friends survived when a plane crashed their minds...in 1904...look at me with your old, old eyes... that you used to look at your God in your old old ways...", wondering, meditative vocals consider unquestioning spiritual belief, perhaps 1904, year of first powered flight giving us mortals wings to see that God does not live in the sky, an inspiration. Followed by 'Pictures' which also crashes, this time a car, into blind reliance on faith as guide, clean simple melody, repeated musical motif picking round an age old question  "...you've been around and you've seen the way things work...but you need a compass to get around your house..."  Beanie hat plucked, warmth unfolds Benjamin's wings into 'Break the Day', first love song of the night, "...everywhere we go...from the summer to the snow...we will pave the way... break the day open...", touch of emotive picked motif completing words, 'Maps''- wanders lost in watchful, wistful reverie of fickle love, "...I named a star after you...but that wasn't bright enough for you.. I'll wait for the day when I find a way to make you mine..." Bottle Baby' leads the way into trio of more esoteric numbers, disconsolately weaving round maudlin minor third "... took a ride home... woke up in the snow ...went out to bury my doubt... drink the rain out..." spiked with sparkling glint of hope "... don't need no bottle baby to make me feel safe...", whimsically titled 'Butterfly Culture' shrinks into itself on plaintiff seventh "...when the pills you take turn you to a ghost... you still spin round the most...", whilst spinning ray of hope, "...  because I am a member of the butterfly culture...we pray to god that the girl in that dress... will undress and distress you... with the way that she moves", 'Snowship's' cautionary tale perversely saunters its three note progression in jaunty dance to  devil's tune,"... signed a deal  with the devil and he took my soul  ... be careful what you wish for when you're young..." brief crack in eternal optimism. 

Interspersed and followed by four more lilting love songs, 'Stole You Away', 'Shine', 'Box of Stones' , ending with latest single, 'Atlas Hands', which though they rework sincerely felt but stock in trade lovelorn themes, " ... hope you find the love that's true...",  "...when the sun shines.. winds blow...miss you more...", "...when the stars are the only things we share...will you be there..." also feature memorable one liners such as, "...I am young ...I'm yours... I am free, but I am flawed...", "... I will remember your face...cause I am still in love with that place...." and particularly with the latter two, catchy neat melodic hooks which have invaded my mind, unbidden and found the audience singing along. So, the night draws to a close, leaving me wondering, it is undeniable Benjamin exploits well trodden melodic truisms and metaphors in the telling, boats, harbours, stars, seasons, devils, evocative expressions which illuminate his ruminations and but it is obvious, these are not borrowed phrases, they come directly from his heart, true outpourings of interior discourse which absorb and demand release in music, an old soul reborn with young eyes.

What could be saccharine, though just as sweet, bears more complex overtones of honey, labour of honest endeavour ,intent and necessity, leaving Benjamin an unresolved enigma, real deal or artificially inflated, perpetuated by a presence plastered all over the internet, his press and promotion is unusually efficient and comprehensive for one so new, comparisons with 'Ed' Sheeran are bound to abound and influence, yet what does it matter, it may not be ground breaking but this is music of the people, like Frodo from the Hobbit, an ordinary champion, giving us voice, singing our stories, songs of everyday lives and ironically it seems, that a vast and chaotic internet has power to disregard whims and trends controlled by corporation, to allow the small voice to re emerge, cut through ether, release our hearts.

As he scuttles off with barely a goodbye, this self effacing artiste does not appear to garner the attention which he has generated from attendant crowd, who obviously connect with this people's performer. I open a door to twilight zone where Benjamin flees towards distant glow, my shouted 'hello' causing him to turn, startled and looking into those drained eyes, I recognise a true musician, music his life blood, let us hope it is not sucked out of him, by a fickle industry, alternatively, his rapid departure might just have been desperation for the loo. One way or the other I will keep a more than interested eye on the exploits and explorations of Benjamin Francis Leftwich. www.benjaminfrancisleftwich.com

You can read my fascinating interview with Benjamin here: www.mudkiss.com/benjaminfrancisleftwich.htm

Review by Miss Chumki Banerjee
Photos by Felicity Wren