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Winters icy fingers wrap themselves around the city tonight as a gathering of music lovers make their way to the intimate surroundings of Manchester’s Castle Hotel in search of music to warm the heart.The Castle is a venue rapidly building on a reputation for an increasing number of quality music nights taking place in the recently refurbished back room of this locally famous old hostelry.By far the most significant recent addition to this fast developing musical calendar has been the introduction of “Are We Strangers Now?”

On the first Tuesday of every month “Are We Strangers Now?” (its name taken from Ray Lamontagne’s “Like Rock & Roll and The Radio”) is presented by Red Balloon Music and is the brainchild of Chris Thomas who is both creator and host for these evenings. A hugely likeable, warm and friendly character, Chris has been responsible – possibly unknown to many of Manchester’s gig-goers – for hosting many great nights of quality music over the last few years in venues as diverse and unusual as John Ryland’s Library and Manchester Museum bringing together some of the finest local talent available. Worth noting is that such is his devotion to showcasing musicians in which he believes so strongly is that admissions are always kept to a bare minimum often at cost to himself.

Tonight sees the second of these nights following on from November’s hugely enjoyable debut night which saw the standard set high by excellent performances from Karima Francis, T.G. Elias, Jasmine Kennedy and Stefan Melbourne.

Stefan Melbourne: Once again tonight the role of opener falls to Stefan Melbourne making a swift and extremely welcome return having gotten the series under way last month. Stepping forward from his role behind the drum kit of his band Blacklight Stefan is in the process of making a remarkable transition into a singer/songwriter of great potential with merely a handful of solo performances behind him and the promise of an exciting future ahead. Always looking to add new layers to his live sound Stefan enlists the vocal talents of Chloe Leavers for the first part of his set.

Welsh born Chloe earlier this year released her own debut EP - “All These Things” – featuring six tracks of her truly beautiful music and onstage their voices combine with such natural chemistry that it is to be hoped that this is a partnership that we will see repeated very soon. Still visibly excited to be sharing the bill with fellow performers for whom he has the utmost respect Stefan proves to be also a charismatic young musician swiftly finding his own direction and developing a set of emotionally powerful songs with hints of country and blues. Bringing his set to a close Stefan presents his cover of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac classic – “Need Your Love So Bad” and it is easy to see how both lyrically and in musical style songs such as these play a huge part in influencing his writing and delivery.

Although the prospect of someone covering what you believe to be one of the greatest songs of all time has the potential to strike fear into the heart I am left instead extremely impressed by a an interpretation of great quality.

Christopher Eatough: If songs steeped in melancholy and heartache are the kind that appeal then an opportunity to witness tonight’s second artist – Christopher Eatough – as he shares his heartfelt observations on life and love is certainly too good miss. With a trusty glass of Jim Beam never too far away he treats tonight’s crowd to a selection of songs, the majority of which are taken from what was surely one of this years finest albums – “A Creak In The Cold”.

“Shades Of Blue”, as on the album, opens the set and establishes the subtle layering of despair and optimism that runs through Christopher’s work. With songs that tell us maybe as much of ourselves as they do of the writer, he creates painfully realistic portraits of the less than perfect aspects of relationships – never more so than in the dark lyrics of despair contained in “Hands Down”.

He even jokes that he would take us down a bit further but that would involve going ‘subterranean’ before lifting the mood with “Southern State” – optimistic and upbeat in both lyric and melody. It is, however, on songs such as the wonderful “Wishing Box” that his gentle and expressive vocal excels best as the words describe the hurt that is felt when those closest refuse to listen and are oblivious to the pain they cause. Just how autobiographical these songs are I am not sure and although I hope that Christopher Eatough is himself a happy and contented individual I also hope that he continues to find it in him to write songs as moving as these.

Rae Morris: Twelve months ago winter came early with falls of snow fast turning to sheets of ice across the North West of England. Not the time to leave the comfort of a warm home to travel in search of music some might say. But sometimes you know that something special is beginning to happen and you know also that you have to be there. With an absence of Manchester dates and her earliest compositions constantly running around my head it was time to catch the evening train into Liverpool Lime Street and negotiate the glacial conditions en route to Slater Street’s Jacaranda bar to witness my first live experience of then eighteen year old Rae Morris. A short support set in a basement bar with the occasion gone in almost the blink of an eye and then time to board the train home again. Worth the effort? - More than I could possibly explain.

In the space of the year that has followed, Rae’s world has changed significantly as her determination to succeed and her willingness to gig constantly has begun to pay dividends with the venues that she is now gracing spreading far and wide from those local to her Blackpool home to the major cities where any aspiring musician needs to be seen and heard. In addition to this she has made successful festival appearances at both Reading and Leeds enhancing her growing reputation. Most significantly of all is the recent news that following interest from several labels she has taken a huge step forward, signing a prestigious deal with Atlantic Records.

Tonight sees her take to the stage for the first time as a show headliner and settling herself behind her familiar red keyboard she launches her set with a new composition, “Back To Front” – a song that she describes as ‘work in progress’ but in all honesty would appear to require little or no further improvement as it serves as a wonderful opener. I have had the huge fortune to see Rae play many times since that first night and I, like many others, am still in awe that she discovered her voice, along with her ability to write such beautiful music, so recently.

Rarely have I seen a musician whose performance consistently commands such reverent silence and as she opens her heart with the intensely touching and personal lyrics of “Day One” all ears are trained on Rae’s voice as it swoops from powerful heights to delicate whispers. A more eloquent person than myself would be better able to explain the technical qualities of her performance, in particular the evident influences of her classical training, but what I can say is that both lyrically and vocally her ability to marry together vulnerability and strength in her songs is something that reaches out to engage her audience to great effect with “Did I Ever” another perfect example describing the war that rages in the heart when one battles to balance respect and forgiveness.

Although the confidence in her own ability and the belief that she can take this to the next level is growing steadily, there is an utterly charming modesty that underpins her personality. As the last note of each song subsides and the enthralled audience registers their pleasure she looks as genuinely surprised as she does delighted. For the moment at least Rae doesn’t possess any merchandise to pass on to her eager fans leading her to apologise for having – as she puts it - ‘nothing to give us’. The truth is that everyone will leave with something and that’s the knowledge that they have witnessed an exceptional young performer taking another step towards the success she deserves and personally I will file it away amongst my other ‘I was there’ moments.

Nothing could spoil a set of such quality but I have to own up to a little twinge of disappointment as Rae drew her set to a close without playing one of her earliest compositions – the haunting “Wait A While” which from the first time I heard it has become one of my favourite songs of recent years. Thankfully I had reckoned without the addition of an encore and sure enough there it was – the perfect way to close an excellent night – gets me every time! “Are We Strangers Now?” – an evening of the finest entertainment performed by a collection of wonderfully talented young musicians in an event created by a true music lover in the company of good friends and people of like minded taste. What finer way to put a smile on your face and some warmth in your heart.

They tell me the icy wind was still blowing as we made our way home – I didn’t feel a thing!

Review/photos by Shay Rowan