BEST buddies since Easingwold schooldays, Alexander Flanagan Wright and Phil Grainger reeled off a series of At The Mill double bills back home in North Yorkshire in the first summer of Covid after their Australian tour was aborted.
New York and Edinburgh Fringe plans were scuppered too, after old York called them home, and more than a year later, they are still here, making magical theatre, song and spoken word.
Oh, and building an outdoor theatre too on Stillington Mill’s disused tennis court, with Alex’s father, Paul, and mother, Maggi, playing a prominent role too in establishing the new and impressively diverse At The Mill enterprise (more of which in a CharlesHutchPress interview with Alex later this week).
Last August’s set finished with Phil announcing that wood had arrived for Alex and Phil to start work on converting that summer’s marquee into an outdoor theatre. “If they build it, we will come,” vowed CharlesHutchPress, and sure enough, this summer finds that theatre in full sail for concerts and theatre shows.
For one night, Phil and Alex teamed up with two friends in Foraged & Forged, a showcase of new material written specially for the occasion. Friday night put polymath Phil in the solo spotlight, in the guise of Clive, and while the pre-show rain enforced a late decision to abandon the plan to do one set from one stage, and a second from another, the format of an acoustic first half and electric second set was retained.
“It’s been a bit of an hour,” he said, putting on his bandana in readiness for adopting Clive mode. “It’s ‘look at how good this would have been. Now is what you’re getting’!”
What we were getting was the solo music project of singer, songwriter, musician, sound engineer, magician, actor, Gobbledigook Theatre director and event promoter Phil Grainger. Why Clive, you ask? Phil is not a name for a singer, he reasons. Er, Phil Collins? “Exactly,” said Easingwold Phil in a typical shard of attractively blunt Yorkshire wit that peppered his performance. “Clive is the name for the thing that’s me doing this.”
Clive is his middle name, and his father’s name too, so Clive it is, and tonight the Stillington Mill’s a-Clive with the sound of music. Beautiful, poignant, happy, sad, funny, heart-felt music, sung in one of those surging soul voices where the second cut is always the deepest when Phil, sorry, Clive, lets rip. One of these voices where you ache waiting for those transcendent moments.
Clive would divide his sets, he said, between songs he had been writing for a long time, others that were new, and some so new they were only half written. He would stop them at the point they were half-finished, with no pretence of finesse.
You cannot help but warm to such candour, or indeed to his off-the-cuff sporadic dips into a newly acquired Disney songbook. Or his seemingly rudimentary, yet deeply affecting guitar, that recalls Billy Bragg’s less-is-more playing.
Clive, his dad, was there, and so was his mum. “I didn’t know they were coming,” said Phil, promptly deciding to change his “emotional set-ender” to his “emotional opening number”. “This song is about my mum. It’s called My Mother,” he said, whereupon mum raised a knowing eyebrow.
Soon we learned she does better Sunday roasts than a Toby Carvery, she effing hates swearing and is no fan of tattoos either. Under Alex’s encouragement, Phil’s lyrics are coming on apace, matching his gift for melody, and built around a winning line in couplets and a desire to take the advice of The Streets’ Mike Skinner to always end with a memorable pay-off.
His hymn of praise to the lure of York’s welcoming arms, whenever he is away, is awaiting both completion and confirmation of its title – “it might be Angel Of The North,” he speculated – but already it is completely moving.
Alex and Phil had vowed never to return to the pieces they wrote in a day to perform to an audience that night, but promises are made to be broken, and so out came Home, the one with 14 houseplants acquired by Phil’s girlfriend Angie for their cottage nest and Alex’s poetic “tatty clattering” as a home is found inside a house. “With you I’m two-up; I was one down on my own,” finished Phil. Mike Skinner would surely approve.
After a pleasingly erratic stroll through Disney’s Can You Feel The Love Tonight, the acoustic set concluded with two of Phil’s finest, Little Red and Colour Me In: one pulling at the frayed edges of a disintegrating relationship; the other, from Phil and Alex’s show Orpheus, a ballad that would fit perfectly on Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour on BBC 6Music. “I’m drunk on colour and I’m drunk on soul,” Phil sang, and how we drunk it in.
Electricity was thankfully restricted to Phil’s switch of guitar and not lightning for the second half, introduced by storyteller Phil with his recollection of trying to pay the £600 required for the instrument in £2 coins gathered over time ten years ago. Bank the coins, he was told, but eventually the guitar was his.
A decade later, he finally chanced his arm at a guitar solo in Safe Travels, Hurry Back, words by Alex, title and soar-away tune by Phil. The solo? Grainger’s transition into Jimi Hendrix is on hold.
Best title of the night award went to Hallelujah For The Hell Of It, best couplet to: “I’m hard to read like a broadsheet; you’re hard to keep like the off-beat”.
That made it back from Australia in February 2020, as did another Alex and Phil composition, If Destroyed Still True, written late into the night after their last supper before the urgent flight home, this one composed with Aussie friend Jamie on laptop.
“Just to be clear, we’ve never done this one live, since we wrote it in an hour that night,” said Alex, duly doing his Kae Tempest-style spoken words live, interwoven with Phil’s yearning vocal part and Jamie’s infectious recorded instrumental refrain.
It could have gone wrong at any moment, instead it went beautifully right, and it is in such unpredictable, knife-edge moments that Summer At The Mill is creating its distinctive alchemy.
Do check out the Aussie video at: facebook.com/orpheuseurydicethegods/videos/2254587891515753; the chorus will be your new earworm within minutes.
The Little Mermaid’s Under The Sea survived its Big Phil DIY – Does It Yorkshire – reinvention, and then it was time for Phil to revisit the “wise and gorgeous” recording of Easingwold Players’ stalwart Bronwyn Jennison, who passed away last year.
It had been a highlight of last summer’s Clive show and now, reactivated for the first time since then, Bronwyn’s rendition of Alex’s words had even greater weight after the year we’ve all had. “You carry on, wild child, and I’ll carry on,” said Bronwen through the ether, and Phil and Alex will indeed carry that flame.
Phil’s finale was a humdinger: an audience hum-along to the anything but humdrum Hum, “another song we said we’d never do again, but it’s too special not to!”.
Last August’s review ended with a call to Phil to record an album, and indeed the Half Man Half Bull download has since emerged, but that is a team creation, not the full Phil, and so, Phil, even more than last year, please head into the recording studio. Your mother, for one, would be chuffed.
“I’m so glad I could be here to sing to the benches I made,” he signed off. So we were, so we were.
Review by Charles Hutchinson