ON supposedly one of the worst nights of the year to put on a gig – new school year just started and all that –Sweet Baboo nevertheless did his best to blow away the Tuesday late-summer torpor that hung over the city. Elsewhere Dexys took up the challenge at York Barbican.
Sweet Baboo is the stage name for Stephen Black, a shining light of Wales’s indie scene. While latterly he has paid his bills as part of better-known bands – he sets off again in October touring with Teenage Fanclub – he periodically resurfaces with his own shimmering, lovely tunes.
The stage name comes from Charles M Schulz and Peanuts. His music shares Schulz’s depths, his shiny and bright melodies carrying darker meanings, as great music tends to. More than one of his 13-strong setlist was written to “keep the s**t world at bay from his son”. The best of these was Clear Blue Skies, a song about father and son blasting melodically into space.
Black was performing solo, but like his friend and collaborator H. Hawkline, he trades a fine line in using tape backing. This contraption, which required a stolen eraser to keep it going, provided enough of the flavour of the rich band music from his latest album Wreckage. This machine was also the means to keep us laughing as Black paused to get the tape in the right place, no back, forward, pause, close enough and on with the song. They acted as a well-oiled double act.
Black played beautifully throughout, performing tunes from across his back catalogue. His feigned innocence, his off-kilter world view and innate romantism recalled Scandinavian performers like Sondre Lerche, another multi-instrumentalist. With his austere haircut and monochrome white outfit, if you squinted and listened to the finger picking on Walking In Tthe Rain, it could have been Paul Simon at the time of his Songbook.
Following support act Rowan’s ramshackle but fun opening set (a one-man Violent Femmes), Black was a welcome contrast. Where Rowan’s music sometimes lacks the heft to convey all those ideas, Black can work wonders with little.
New single Werewolves is a case in point; a clever twist on daydreams that could have wide appeal. Rowan’s Skeldergate – written for the saddest street in York – needed to be much glummer, although new song Sail Anywhere would be grand performed with a full band.
A song of farewell was the highlight of Sweet Baboo’s set too. Proving he can make magic of the daily blur, Goodbye is a gorgeous composition about taking a dog for lockdown walks, but so cleverly written and tuneful as to have far wider appeal.
Expense ruling out touring with a band, Black is one of the very few who doesn’t need one. Adept on assorted instruments, he gave us snatches of flute, and even a temperamental Yamaha wind synthesiser that lent a Bernie Worrell or William Onyeabor-style squelch to Pink Rainbow.
Swimming Wild stretched out with no trappings, then Cate’s Song topped that, touching, funny and both better than the more arranged originals.
In Black’s hands there was no room for gloom, and for 80 minutes, we were in his palm. Catch this original if you can.
Review by Paul Rhodes