Power of the solo performer can boost the most frazzled soul

I’m writing this on a train from Oxford to London, having flown back home for Christmas a few days. It was an overnight trip from New York to Heathrow, followed by a night in Canterbury, two in Oxford, and now four in London before heading back to Canterbury. I’m pretty frazzled, to say the least. Anyway, this is, of course, the time of year when every music magazine, website and blog compiles their end of year lists. Which I’m not going to do, because they’re rather ridiculous and arbitrary. Picking your favourite albums of the year in order is like picking a favourite child (not that I have children, mind) – it’s unfair and probably changes day to day.

That said, there was one recent musical moment which really stood out for me as my first chapter in New York came to a close. The first was seeing Matthew Ryan play as part of a benefit for victims of Hurricane Sandy at this great venue called Union Hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I’ve been a fan for years, having accidentally stumbled across his debut album, ‘May Day’, maybe about a decade ago. I’d seen him live only with a band called Strays Don’t Sleep back in London in 2006, but never solo until a few nights before the benefit show – at the personal request of the band, he was opening each of their three sold out shows at the cavernous Terminal 5 venue.

Powerful stuff

Having interviewed Strays Don’t Sleep that night in London, it was a pleasure to bump into him at the third Gaslight gig and have a little catch up, when he told me about the benefit show. And although his sets the two nights I saw him support there were great, seeing him in a much smaller, quieter setting was phenomenal. The friend who came with me – who was there at both Gaslight shows I went too and who’d never heard of Matthew Ryan – was practically moved to tears during his set. And I have to admit, I’ve rarely seen a performance – just one man, a guitar and a harmonica – as powerful and affecting as the half an hour that Ryan played that evening. So much so that I don’t even want to attempt to describe it, because it would be an utter injustice.

Suffice to say, I’ve been listening to little else since. Which is great, but also pretty depressing, because these are some of the saddest songs ever committed to tape. Not really very festive, admittedly, but it makes a welcome change from all those awful, ubiquitous Christmas songs that are on rotation everywhere at this time of year. And, as an old friend once said to me, there’s nothing like a little heartache to make you feel alive. Matthew Ryan’s songs have enough heartache to make the whole world aware that they’re right here, right now. In fact, it’s quite terrifying. But it’s also a great feeling. Ho ho ho…merry Christmas!

Having spent six and a half years living in London, but dreaming of New York, Mischa Pearlman has finally made the jump across the Atlantic. Now, you can find him drifting between the venues and late night bars of Manhattan and Brooklyn and grinning manically while gazing at the skyline. He writes about music for various magazines and, just to complete the cliché, is writing a novel. E-mail him, if you like: [email protected]

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