Following the release of his fourth album ‘Kingsdown Sundown’, the Kent singer-songwriter hits Brighton on the penultimate night of his biggest UK tour to date.
The first thing on most people’s lips on entering Brighton’s Komedia – one of the most popular comedy venues outside of London – is: “Why is everyone sat down?”
Sure, tomorrow folk singer Will Varley will play the idyllic Union Chapel, Islington where seated pews are very much the order of things, but in this basement comedy club that, as you might expect, has cabaret-style inward-facing tables, it’s a quite peculiar arrangement for regular gig goers.
First up are long-time friends and Smugglers Records co-founders Cocos Lovers, an alternative multi-instrument septet ensemble. They’re equally as varied as that description sounds, with strong African roots mixed with haunting melodies. Despite their best efforts, it’s only an obscure eerie saw solo that brings the subdued and segregated crowd to life, in between watching people wander through tables to the toilets and hearing the non-muffled clanking of glasses from the bar.
Luckily main attraction Will Varley is a more domineering presence, and one who seems loved by the his fanbase whatever the setting. Opener ‘As For My Soul’ is a rousing start, as he deliberately emphasises the lyrics “As we do our bad Dylan impressions in a dirty downstairs room” – slightly altering them to match the occasion – and immediately putting the apprehensive crowd at ease.
He addresses the room’s issues straight away, citing the forthcoming Union Chapel gig, before comparing the setting to a Working Man’s Club and the subsequent atmosphere to Phoenix Nights. “I usually play rowdy bars, this is great”, he says, probably not anticipating the hecklers and audience distractions that will later litter his set.
The one saving grace is this setup serves as a platform for the singer-songwriter to introduce his songs at length, which works especially well for the more political moments. ‘To Build A Wall’, in the current post-Trump / Brexit context resonates soundly, as does the ever poigniant ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’.
Of course, some of Will Varley’s output is far less serious, which at a normal gig can offer some welcome respite, but in this arena verges too far into cabaret. A mention of hotel chain Premier Inn starts a conversation from the crowd – normally hidden in the darkness several rows back, but here able to converse directly with the stage.
Later teenage hecklers disrupt several songs, which Varley quickly bats away with ease, albeit with the night seeming increasingly more like Komedia’s regular output by the minute. Usual singalong ‘We Don’t Believe You’ also unfortunately falls flat, as the awkwardly dispersed crowd don’t dare to raise their voices above hushed tones without the knowledge of others in immediate proximity to support them.
That’s not to say the room doesn’t have it’s benefits. ‘Outside Over There’ is prefaced with a plea to keep the noise down, and the duly obliging audience are treated to a touching rare acoustic treat. Similarly, later Varley indulges himself a performance of a song he wrote when he was 14, that – by his own admission – very clearly borrows from Blink 182. It would be a few more months into his teenage years, he explains, before the Dylan obsession kicked in.
The ramshackle approach is standard for Will Varley gigs, and indeed part of his charm, but can be frustrating. While the more comical songs – particularly the now infamous ‘Talking Cat Blues’ – resonate with the younger members of the audience, you can’t help but feel he’s wasting his potential as a serious singer-songwriter, especially with such a mesmerising vocal tone and knack for poignant folk tunes.
Final song ‘King For A King’ is the perfect balance of the two. No longer hiding behind the comic elements of his act, although still very musically there in it’s lyrical honestly, it proves that, once playing it straight, Will Varley is a truly fine performer. Even when towards the end he forgets the lyrics, it doesn’t matter. In a night when the audience have been as much the focal point as the man on stage, they are there to carry him over the line.
“Without you I’d be lost”, he says, and although at times both the room and the audience have been a hinderance, he’s not wrong. With a loyal and devoted fanbase, he’s got all the elements he needs to fine-tune his act into one that could be something really special.