Hearing American musicians talk about their travels around the UK always makes me smile. Tonight, it’s Tommy Hale who sets the corners of my mouth twitching. When an American accent starts snaking its way around the names of some of this country’s towns and cities, I start mentally rewriting the first verse of Chuck Berry’s Promised Land. Substituting Wigan and Leicester for Raleigh and Caroline turns the song’s road-mythologising poetry into a battered RAC route map.
A Dallas resident who’s spent the last eight days trekking around England in support of his first solo album, Far From Grace, Tommy Hale is playing an unnervingly empty Camden venue. I’ve never been to The Verge before, but I’m guessing that it’s a bustling little place on a warm Saturday when the latest local sensation is headlining. Unfortunately, it’s a freezing Thursday and Tommy’s name doesn’t ring many bells with London folk.
Oh, and the Northern Line is broken.
Playing to a crowd of 15 isn’t exactly the rock ‘n’ roll dream. Me? I take a perverse pleasure in watching bands perform to small audiences. A musician playing an empty room will often reveal far more of his muse than one lapping up the applause of a full house. For some, music is a sprint; it’s about winning or losing – if their band play in a club and there’s no one around to hear them, do they make a sound? For others, it’s a leisurely jog, each gig or record an opportunity to enjoy the company of whoever might be passing. The friends might be fewer, but the bonds are stronger.
Tommy fits into the latter category, and keeps his dignity intact. Assisted by a London-based band called The Snakes – a rocking four-piece who’ve been making a few waves of their own in new-country circles – he pitches his performance at a level that yells neither ‘ego’ nor ‘help!’. He appears relaxed from the word go, and comes across as a likeable, humble and humorous singer who can effortlessly lose himself in what he does. The on-stage pole (a ceiling support) is a minor distraction through the first song, but Tommy soon figures out how to incorporate it into the show, swinging around it as if it were, in fact, placed there at his request.
When he’s not wearing a guitar, his on-stage mannerisms occasionally hint at Mick Jagger – shoulders back, chest out, arms waving at his sides. His distinctive vocals are founded on a Jagger-ish drawl, too, though anyone shouting ‘rip off!’ would be foolish. Tommy’s from Dallas, Texas; Jagger’s from Richmond, Surrey – you tell me who has a licence to twang.
Most of the songs from the Far From Grace album – a solid nine-tracker that showcases Tommy’s love of rootsy, tuneful rock ‘n’ roll – get an airing tonight, from the Tom Petty-esque Told Me To, through the Spanish-flavoured Havana By Midnight, to the Stonesy Ringmaster. The Snakes might be on loan for this jaunt (a collection of Dallas-based musicians play on the album), but they look and sound like they’ve been touring with Tommy for far longer than a week. There’s no evidence of sloppiness in the arrangements or performances; even a cover of the Dogs D’Amour’s Saviour, the album’s acoustic closing track, gets the full-band treatment.
There seems to be genuine camaraderie between frontman and band, too – no doubt helped by associations and friendships going back to the days of Tommy’s old band, Swank Deluxe, when “two of the guys [from The Snakes] had a band called Cellophane Aeroplane, and we used to play in Winchester and around”. As he recalls his past week’s experiences from the stage, including “travelling in a van without a muffler”, it’s obvious that Tommy’s had a ball. Mid-way through the set, perhaps to show his gratitude to The Snakes, Tommy leaves us in their capable hands for three songs, all of which fit well with tonight’s laidback yet rockin’ vibe.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to despise certain aspects of the gig-going experience – the non-stop chatter while bands are playing is annoying and disrespectful. Tonight, the audience may not be legion but they are certainly interested, and Tommy Hale and The Snakes remind me just what it is I enjoy about gigs: the music. Thrills don’t come much purer than watching talented musicians plug in, kick back and have a good time. “Where were you yesterday?” sings Tommy as the set draws to a close. I could’ve been cleaning toilets for all I care; I’d still be feeling pretty good tonight.
Suddenly, the Promised Land doesn’t seem quite so far away. And the best part is, it’s now possible to get there on the A503.