The last time I saw Richard Hawley perform live there were two abiding memories that I took away with me: the fact that he performed the entire show in a wheelchair, and the hordes of tiresome Pringles-scoffing spectators who ruined this writer’s evening by inanely talking throughout the entire show. Both of these issues are addressed directly by Hawley from the stage of tonight’s performance, the last date of a critically acclaimed national tour that has seen him swiftly upgraded from bridesmaid to bride on the back of a revelatory psyche-rock album, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, that is currently the bookies’ favourite to win the 2012 Mercury award.
The wheelchair, the upshot of a perfect European storm borne of a marble staircase and new leather-soled shoes (an accident so elegant that Paul Weller must have wept hot tears of envy), is long-gone but the physical welfare of its owner is fresh in the minds of his devotees. ‘How’s the leg?’ one shouts good-naturedly. ‘Nosy cunt’, replies the singer to the raucous cheers of the audience. Hawley’s cantankerously foul-mouthed effin’ and jeffin’ is the stuff of legend and the product of a life played out in the hard-nosed Embassy-stained boozers and social clubs of Sheffield. He stands as the very embodiment of a man who has ‘paid his dues’ and a cultural icon of some veneration in his home city; it was with no small degree of civic reverence that Alex Turner commenced The Arctic Monkeys’ acceptance speech for the Mercury award bestowed upon the band’s debut album with the words, ‘Someone call the police, Richard Hawley’s been robbed!’. Between songs, the ‘talking’ issue is set about with welcome resentful vigour. ‘There’s a load of people talking in here, don’t you fucking hate the kind of people who do that? The kind of people who can afford to shell out thirty-odd quid on a ticket and then waste it by talking utter shite at the bar’. To an appreciative roar from the crowd, Hawley focuses in on the true target of his frustration; the type of people he no doubt bears a grudge against in everyday life: the rich, the self-satisfied, and the uncommitted. ‘Guest-list people’, he sneers, to more applause.
‘It’s as if Roy Orbison has joined the Jesus and Mary Chain’, a friend suggests knowingly to me when Hawley takes to the stage, a perfectly greased kiss-curl balancing effortlessly above a pair of ‘This Year’s Model’ specs and a fitted bad-boy get-up straight out of ‘The Leather Boys’. ‘Where the fuck did you lot come from?’ he asks, smiling wryly at the vast expanse of this sold-out venue, his biggest headlining show to date.
‘Farnborough!’ shouts one well-spoken wag to the rear of me, demonstrating from the off that the shoots of Hawley’s personal northern worldview have already taken serious root down south. Opening with a sequence of material from the new album, an ominous swamp-rocker of some gravitas and yet another that derives its name from his hometown – Skye Edge being a notorious Sheffield housing estate – it’s intriguing to deliberate what those who’ve come to Hawley via the retro chocolate box route of soundtracks and ice-cream commercials make of this decisively brooding change in direction; tales of lives blighted by violence and poverty rather than those validated by the redemptive power of loyalty and love. His increasingly lofty back catalogue is still shrewdly employed however, and it’s ultimately refreshing to observe how effectively and effortlessly modern classics the like of ‘Open Up the Door’ and ‘The Streets Are Ours’ complement the more challenging new material.
Hawley is a notorious grouch. Forever an advocate of vinyl as the definitive pop artefact he rails against the scourge of the mp3 file – ‘a bucket of steam’ – and the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ notion of iTunes and download culture at large: ‘I’ve worked really hard for my money,’ he suggests, by way of explanation, ‘and I’d like to exchange it for absolutely fuck-all please’. When Hawley proceeds to encourage the crowd, whose ages range from fifteen to fifty, to join him in chanting ‘Vinyl – good! Mp3 – bad!’ it’s (ironically) only the most curmudgeonly who refuse to join in. At the conclusion of the set, the singer takes a moment to reflect upon the stature of the acts he has previously shared this revered stage with; the Wellers, Cockers and Garveys of this world, before producing a tightly-bound posy of red and white flowers and tossing it, in a celebratory ‘no longer the bridesmaid’ gesture, into the grasping arms of an adoring audience. It’s an emotional act of self-validation and a singly touching gesture of mutually indebted bonding between an artist and his public. Just don’t make a point of telling him that. In his perfectly observed role as the Arthur Seaton of contemporary rock’n’roll you’re likely to receive nothing short of a wholly contradictory response. Whatever people say Richard Hawley is, that’s what he’s not.