There comes a time when a man must put away his dancing shoes. There they go into the back of the wardrobe, carrying blurred memories of late nights and early mornings, and out comes something more sensible – a pair of loafers, say.
Perhaps Ben Watt, 51, was sporting just such footwear at Islington Assembly Hall. I couldn’t see. But there was a loafer-like aspect to the music, a relaxed, FM-rock quality that lay some distance from the downbeat indie music of his Everything but the Girl days and even further from his subsequent career as a dance music DJ. The shift in tone was aided by some classy accompanists, including ex-Suede man Bernard Butler, one of the best rock guitarists of his generation, and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, one of the best guitarists of any generation.
The occasion marked the release of Watt’s new album Hendra. It’s named after the road where his half-sister lived at the time of her death in 2012, a bereavement that spurred Watt to write only his second solo LP in 30 years. Its songs are about loss, ageing, solace and landscape, a counterpart to his recent book about his parents, Romany and Tom.
He opened with its title track, a thoughtful, shimmering number with carefully weighted blues-rock guitar played by Butler. (Gilmour didn’t appear until later.) Then came “Golden Ratio”, a bossa nova-accented, jazzy evocation of a long contemplative walk. The same subject cropped up in “Forget”, Butler playing the kind of fluid Mark Knopfler-esque licks that would have been verboten in Watt’s 1980s indie youth.
The mood was mellow; so much so that “North Marine Drive” was interrupted by a thump as someone fell over. Watt wasn’t a particularly impressive singer, but his plain voice suited the memoiristic material well, giving it an honest, everyman quality. Songs were preceded by introductory anecdotes, such as two written following a youthful pilgrimage to Robert Wyatt’s house. Another, played alone by Watt at the piano, was about scattering his jazz-musician father’s ashes.
When the grey-bearded Gilmour came on for “The Levels” it was as though a gentle father-figure had materialised. His pedal steel guitar decorated the song with hazy, teasing wisps of sound. Then came a switch to electric guitar for “Young Man’s Game”, Gilmour swapping riffs with Butler as Watt sang about getting too old for “late nights” and “Jägerbombs”. A guitar solo rang out, rich and resonant, perfectly measured: the ultimate middle-aged consolation, more so even than loafers.