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Darren Hayman - Camden Head and Bush Hall, London, 19/10/2010...23/11/2010

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 4 / 12 / 2010

Darren Hayman - Camden Head and Bush Hall, London, 19/10/2010...23/11/2010


Despite the former Hefner frontman's claim that he had gone off playing gigs after being attacked in the street after a show in Nottingham earlier this year, Ben Howarth watches Darren Hayman play five very different shows over a month in his native London

In an interview given only three months ago, Darren Hayman complained that he had completely gone off touring, saying that he found organising live performances too stressful to be enjoyable. This was far from the first time that he had hinted that gigs would be few and far between. Although he emphasised that he continued to enjoy himself when he got onstage, I was not expecting to see Darren play very often anymore. It would be hard to blame him – after all, he was attacked in the street after a show in Nottingham last year and faced fairly serious injuries and a spell in hospital. But it seems that Darren can’t quite resist the lure of playing shows. Keen-eyed Londoners have had the chance to see him play five very different sets since the release of his most recent album, ‘Essex Arms’. First, he played a full length, full-band show at the Luminaire, the launch party for his new album. In early December, he rounded off his run with a headline set at a poetry night in his home town of Walthamstow. In between, he played three greatly contrasting sets. The first, in a room above a pub in Camden, came after a comedy set by Robin Ince. The audience were treated to a mixture of Ince’s recent Edinburgh set and some new jokes, before he introduced Darren to play some songs from his new album. Resisting Ince’s jibes to sing some of his old Hefner songs, Hayman showed just how strong his new album is. Performing without a mike, he strummed a ukulele while Secondary Modern colleague Dan Mayfield played violin. Despite being an album about a doomed relationship in the lawless underbelly of the Essex countryside, in which one of the two main protagonists dies, it is a surprisingly uplifting set of songs, best shown by the catchy refrains of ‘The Winter Makes You Want Me More’ and ‘Nothing You Can Do About It’, two defiant love songs. With his carefully observed lyrics and subtle arrangements, Hayman was an ideal foil to Ince’s literate, busy comedy. A crowd split roughly 50-50 between hardcore Haymanoracks and people who’d never heard a note of his music before lapped it up, and then burst into slightly inappropriate laughter at a reference to actress Anna Friel within a song about a fatal car accident. His next performance came in the rather grander settings of the Bush Hall, where he enjoyed the use of a grand piano. Accompanied by a trumpeter, Darren sung and played in a noticeably more refined style. He had in fact intended not to say anything at all in between songs, but couldn’t resist making a joke about not wearing any trousers behind the piano. Later, in a tip of the hat to his increasingly large twitter following, he shouted out the Robin Hood airport joke that had recently seen a twitter user in court. A little bit of silliness could not distract from a fantastic performance. Hayman has recently recorded an album of piano songs (likely to be called 'The Ship’s Piano'), but this show largely comprised re-worked versions of older songs. ‘Don’t Flake Out On Me’, from 1998’s Peel favourite 'The Fidelity Wars', has aged well, but it was the less well known songs that worked best. ‘Punk Rock’s Going To Die’, an obscurity from the French (whose best known work is already obscure enough to merit inclusion in Mojo’s 'Buried Treasures' column) got the kind of cheers to suggest a large element of the aforementioned Haymanoracks in the audience, but the highlight came with ‘China Crisis’, a lovely song that went largely unnoticed on Hefner’s “career-suicide” album, the synth-based 'Dead Media'. Time, it seems, to reclaim that particular release as one that contains some of the band’s most imaginative songwriting. There was also room in a 45 minute set for one of his strongest ballads, ‘Your Head To Your Toes’ and a piano-take on one of his sadder songs, ‘The National Canine Defence League’, which benefitted from the stripped back arrangements. A few more songs from 'Essex Arms' confirmed my belief that this was one of the strongest albums of the year. ‘Dagenham Ford’, a poignant song that may seem even more so when next year’s wave of public sector unemployment kicks in, was sung beautifully. Low key – Hayman was not headlining, but instead played below the reformed Orchids – this show suggested that, if he wants to and if he is given the chance to, Hayman could easily win over large audiences. A few weeks later, he was back in the pub in Camden with Robin Ince. Having played a show that celebrated the dusty corners of his songbook, Hayman reminded us that he is, first and foremost, a busy and active composer of new material. Shunning his recorded work, he concentrated only on new material. Hayman has three albums in various stages of completion – one featuring songs about astronauts, one featuring songs composed on his Ship’s Piano and the third in his trilogy of ‘Essex Albums’, this time concerning the 17th century Essex witch trials. Hayman has conceded that he is finding the last of these harder to write – but the Camden Head was treated to his work so far, and it suggests a great deal of promise. Like his two previous Essex albums, it doesn’t seem an obvious topic for an album. But, as Hayman explained, although it is nominally about the Essex witch trials, it is really an album about fear and loneliness. These are some of the most downbeat and melancholy songs he has composed since the first Hefner album, and – unlikely as it may seem – might just be the record to win back some of the old Peel listeners who appear to have forgotten about him. When Darren’s first solo album, ‘Table For One’, was released, 'The Guardian' compared him to Ray Davies and gave him a five star review. Five years later, he hasn’t been able to enjoy the record sales Davies will be hoping for with his ‘See My Friends’ album, but has further developed his idiosyncratic approach to the extent where the comparison doesn’t seem at all outlandish. In January, he will be composing a song each day, recording them with the help of some friends and giving them away from free on a new blog. I can’t wait.

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Darren Hayman - Camden Head and Bush Hall, London, 19/10/2010...23/11/2010

Darren Hayman - Camden Head and Bush Hall, London, 19/10/2010...23/11/2010

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