Live Review: Gary Stewart’s Graceland at Pocklington Arts Centre

The first time I saw this fantastic show celebrating Paul Simon’s Graceland album, it was the summer of 2019. The Crescent in York heaved with noise and sweat, everybody was on their feet. It was among the best gigs I’ve been to in recent years. This time, a more sober atmosphere prevailed. Pocklington Arts Centre’s audience are older, demure, and a little resistant to getting out of their seats. They listen. They don’t, on the whole, make a fuss. Which can be a two- edged sword for a performer. You have to win them over.

Review and Feature Photo by Miles Salter

The first half was a muted affair. Gary Stewart came on to do a solo set, comprising mainly of his own material, with a brace of tunes taken from his most recent album, Lost, Now Found. His guitar sounded superb, and Gary has a penchant for precision – he likes to get the songs spot on. But something was missing. He didn’t grab the audience by the horns, introduce himself, or explain the shape of the evening. The applause was genuine but not raucous.  The posters advertised his Graceland show, but didn’t mention his solo set. Despite encouragement yelled from the audience, the singer, clearly an introvert, seemed taken aback. ‘I’m going off now to sit in a corner and think about what happened,’ he said at the end of the first half. 

The second half was fantastic. I was reminded how good Paul Simon’s lyrics are. So atmospheric, so full of detail. The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar. Joseph’s face was black as night and the pale yellow moon shone in his eye. Angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity.  I loved that album when it came out and tonight I’m singing along. The opening words of Boy In The Bubble sounded strangely ominous on a historical day when Russia invaded Ukraine and many people died: ‘It was a slow day, the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road. There was a bright light, a shattering of shop windows, the bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.’ 

Gary’s band help him with the audience. His two guitarists are wonderful, making the audience laugh with their inane comments, not taking themselves too seriously. ‘I’ve had a difficult twenty minutes,’ says a deadpan Sam Lawrence (accordion, whistle, guitar), after issues with his amplifier. Rich Huxley, who plays with Gary in Hope and Social, is similarly fun. They really add to the conversation with the audience. The music is brilliant – abundant, full of life, a celebration of all that is good. Backing vocalist and trumpet player Kirsty Bowers dances with a smile on her face. Isaac Heywood (drums), bassist Danny Laycock and percussionist Graham Butcher are quiet but formidable as the band’s rhythm section. Gary says nothing about Graceland, or why he likes Paul Simon, or how he’s been influenced by him, and again it’s a shame – he could tell the audience the story of how the album was made, or provide details about the controversies surrounding Paul Simon’s biggest solo success. As the gig ends, after a brace of Simon songs (Duncan, a hidden gem from the Simon catalogue, was particularly good) a chunk of the audience have been on their feet for some time. The band look happy. But Gary doesn’t namecheck them! It was a great gig, and this show will run and run. It’s such a treat to see some great musicians enjoying themselves, and with songs this good they cannot fail. If Gary can learn to relax and talk to the audience a little more, it will be even better.  

Miles Salter is a writer and musician based in York. He fronts the band Miles and The Chain Gang. Gary Stewart’s Graceland was performed at Pocklington Arts Centre on Thursday 24 February 2022.