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James Holt – The Deaf Institute, Manchester: Live Review

It was set to be a night of imaginative, expressive music melding impressions and eras together – as much-loved multi-instrumentalist James Holt headlined the city’s Deaf Institute on Friday 4 October, complete with a band – and also featuring special guests Felix Hill and Tom Mouse Smith.

The sold-out status of the show was a key testament to James’ unique sound, technical skill and dedication; after all a locally (Horwich, Bolton) based artist who has made an impression across the airwaves, as well as at various live events – continuing to be a popular performer at (and champion of) characterful, independent venues.

Not only does he compose his own music, but creates and delivers complex, well-crafted lyrics loaded with feeling. A supportive and expressive individual known by many on the music scene, these are additional qualities that have seen James make lasting connections across audiences – and informs his sound too: emotive, energised and with a palpable sense of personality.

James’ engaged attitude was even evident in the curation of the night; a line-up featuring and celebrating other young musicians. First on the bill was local singer-songwriter Felix Hill, bringing together expressive vocals underpinned by resonant guitar. With his debut single Pale Moons and second being Streetlight Panorama – the approach of Felix’s work has a reflective quality bringing the themes of everyday living together with the creative craving to think outside the box.

Tom Mouse Smith followed – a solo performer who brought a real sense of creative confidence and connectivity to the stage. Aged just 15, Tom has already supported the likes of Catfish & The Bottlemen, James Bay and The Charlatans… delivering a distinct, alternative-rock sound that swells with his surprisingly deep, expansive vocals. This is the type of voice that gets right into the grit of the syllables, suspending vowels wide open, creating real performative flair. His raw, extended vocal expression is evocative – though something I feel could be pared back perhaps a little to allow his sensitive and perceptive lyricism to further shine through; though this is of course just my take. Highlights included his own track A Little Bit More – building on themes of loss and reflection, whilst I’m Not Going was delivered with a deft sense of defiance, energy and technical skill. A talented musician as well as a singer-songwriter, Tom was the only artist on stage throughout his set – using a selection of guitars – managing to give real gravitas and hold the attention of the room. Underlining this especially was his performance of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, well-punctuated by his own edgy instrumentation.

Then came the highly anticipated set of James Holt – complete with a talented band, plunging straight into his latest single Little Green Light. Oozing with emotive charm and charged with literary allusions to The Great Gatsby and the fading façade of the American dream, the track highlights James’ clear songwriting skill… and a performance to match.

Wearing one of his characteristic patterned shirts, James made a majestic presence in the room, his energy and enjoyment of the music being built up live so clear to see. Little Green Light propelled the mood into a powerful upbeat, pulsing with tambourine-tapped rhythms and atmospheric jangly guitar. The chemistry between James and the band was immediately evident too, his characterful, self-composed sound delivered with bass, guitar, percussion, seriously powerful drumming and  a particularly exciting live edition… saxophone! Skilled and perceptive, the on-stage saxophonist added brilliant bolts of upbeat which were never overdone.

Even though James’ songs are often complex and intricate in their composition – an element he keeps at the core of his performances and in the production of the tracks themselves, is their human warmth and intuition. This was a particular quality of one my favourites, Come Out To Play, enriched with on-stage vocal volleys and harmonies which gave me goosebumps –music crafted with real affection for childhood memories and the theme of exploratory enjoyment. Yet as well as musing  melodies, James is clearly capable of creating rousing, rollicking upbeats – as was evinced by the brisk and urgent Alone Again; another highlight.

Throughout the set, the positive energy evinced from the stage was uplifting to see and feel – infusing the packed audience who represented a number of ages and backgrounds; highlighting the real range of listeners who continue to enjoy James’ work. He gave great thanks to the band and also his supportive family, before boldly proceeding into a penultimate track which was weighed with a real rock edge – an interesting development on his sound, and massively enjoyed by the crowd. Swaying and incensed by the music, James’ enigmatic stage presence gave an additional edge.

Ending the night with  the much loved Whatever Happened To John? – a brisk and punchy narrative underpinned by quick witty vocals and plunging guitar- this underlined James’ thrilling skill and artistry. Creating a sound and exploring literary and cultural references with intense observation, James Holt seems to be a musical figure forging together eras – the swing of the ‘60s in particular seeping through – yet resisting definition and retaining a complete distinctness. An artist who both impresses and intrigues, and certainly worth celebrating.

James Holt: Official Website / Facebook / Twitter / Soundcloud

All photos are property of Shay Rowan. You can find him and his great work on Facebook. Thank you for sharing, Shay!

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