It’s 7pm on a balmy spring evening, and I’m wandering up Orsman Road in Hoxton, towards The Stag’s Head. I have no idea why I expect to find a tranquil beer garden on a Friday night in London’s East End, but my awakening is far from rude. As I enter the pub I’m immediately greeted by Tommy Hale, who’s standing just inside the doorway nursing a large wooden spoon bearing the number five.
The singer, songwriter and sometime guitarist from Dallas, Texas, is in the UK for an eight-date tour, which has already taken him and his band from Exmouth to Hastings, via Swindon, Bristol and Guildford. I saw the latter show three nights ago, and this evening I’m looking forward to questioning Tommy about some of its finer details – hopefully, for the benefit of the tape, in a nice quiet spot.
But first, there’s that wooden spoon to take care of.
There’s an unwritten rule in the music industry that goes something like this: whatever the date on which you’re planning to put out your new record, add at least three months – and then, when you’ve finally got that date, add an extra week. The wheels of design, manufacture and publicity can move slower than anticipated, and it’s impossible to cheat the system by anticipating delays from the outset – a problem I like to call the Release Date Paradox – so don’t try to be smart.
And so it is that 10 months after its final recording session, and two seasons after its planned spring release, Tommy Hale’s third solo album, Magnificent Bastard, has made parole. I first heard it in an unmastered, tentatively sequenced form last November, when I did an interview with Tommy in the Wiltshire studio where it was recorded. But the finished LP – the complete Bastard, you might say – is at last upon us, and listeners can finally get to decide whether it lives up to the claim of its title.
“It seems I let time slip away…” – Magnificent Bastard by Tommy Hale
Time is many things – some prosaic, some poetic. To the young it’s a comfort; to the grieving it’s a healer; to the toiling it’s a currency; to the creative it’s a storyteller. Albert Einstein once said that the separation between past, present and future is an illusion, which has got to be worth a shot the next time your mortgage payment is late.
The one universal, scientifically agreed truth about time, though, is that if you’re awaiting a new record from a favoured musician, it’s a massive pain in the arse.
It’s been eight years since Tommy Hale’s last album, Stolen Conversations, Three Chords And The Truth – and, given the opportunity to grill him about its now-imminent follow-up, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t ask him why.
Dan Baird once joked that all his songs were about teenage runaways. For Tommy Hale, it’s lost love.
“This is about a girl that left me. Pretty much every song is about a girl that left me.”
Reassurance from bassist John is swift: “We won’t leave you, Tommy!”
The introduction is for Miss Independence, a choice cut from Tommy’s new album, Stolen Conversations, Three Chords And The Truth. The song sounds even more striking in a live setting, its falsetto hook a badge of the Texan performer’s confidence.
An annual visitor to the UK, Tommy is midway through what he calls a “mini-tour”, which includes two shows in London. On Monday, he opened an acoustic night at The Boogaloo in Highgate, playing to a stacked and stoked crowd, the likes of which I had no idea existed so early in the week.
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.
Tommy Hale surveys the situation from the bar: “I think this is amateur band night or somethin’.”
It certainly looks like it. The band currently doing their thing on stage are somewhat less than inspiring. The crowd seem more suited to a karaoke night in a wine bar. Rock ‘n’ Roll Central this is not.
“The King’s Head was the same kind of thing,” says the Swank Deluxe frontman, leaning in towards me to make himself heard above the sub-Jamiroquai funk-lite lounge muzak. A few days before tonight’s second-on-the-bill Mean Fiddler bash, Tommy led his troops through a 40-minute set at the King’s Head in Fulham, where they found themselves sandwiched uneasily between two bands who, by the sound of things, probably think that Chuck Berry is a renowned US undertaker and Keith Richards used to front a popular ’60s group called The Shadows.