MATTHEWS SOUTHERN COMFORT
The Borderline, London, December 1 2012
Grim, cold, miserable evenings such as this, that involve dragging one's carcass from your Home counties retreat into central Londinium, deserve to be rewarded with warm, soothing yet eerie and haunting music that puts a fireside glow into your heart. Thank God, then, for Iain Matthews and the new lineup of Southern Comfort.
I just wish more people agreed with me: sadly, despite being the only former member of Fairport Convention to have ever achieved anything in his solo career resembling a hit single (actually, let's not be coy, it was a UK No 1!!) Ian's concerts in the capital have often been poorly attended, and tonight's turnout is still decidedly thin. The lack of members from the original line-up may not have helped matters either.
Either as a singer-songwriter or a skilful selector of covers, Matthews has always seemed like the man who missed out. When he was on the brink of becoming one of Britain's premier introspective singer-songwriters, Al Stewart trounced him - twice. As a harmony vocalist and rhythm guitarist extraordinaire, he dwelt forever in the shadow of Graham Nash. In selling himself as Britain's very own Robbie Robertson, he was pipped to the post by early Elton John. For skilful interpretations of other, lesser-known writers' material, we already had pre-'Sailing' era Rod Stewart, and that song itself had been penned by the Sutherland Brothers, the Scots outfit who, whether subconsciously or not, seemed more adept at turning the template laid down by Matthews' own band Plainsong into hard cash than they did themselves. I can't think of many more musicians, particularly of such calibre, that have suffered such abysmal luck, yet refused to let it bother them. From the moment he strides casually onstage, picks up his guitar and approaches the microphone, the first impression you get is of a man, nearing 70 but not looking a day over 50, who clearly lives for the enjoyment engendered by being up there.
Around him he has also assembled a crack team of fine (predominantly Dutch) musicians: they don't resemble the old Southern Comfort in any way, particularly as they don't include a pedal steel (an instrument Iain himself explains his disdain for later on, although it has to be said I completely disagree with him) but their skill and virtuosity is flawless. Acoustic guitarist/vocalist Terri Binion, a red-haired vision not unlike a young Sandy with lungs to match provides the perfect foil for Matthews' gravellier, earthier tones, effective as much on newer, more unfamiliar songs like 'Perfect Love' (which she also composed) and 'O Donnell Street' as the much older 'Darcy Farrow', which the enthusiastic audience bayed fervently for and were eventually rewarded with. Yet, as much as I know both this track and the sublime, wistful 'And Me', I have to admit that I am also unfamiliar with most other Southern Comfort material, being more a collector of Matthews' material from If You Saw Thru My Eyes onwards. What I thus admire is that even now, with the name technically functioning as a collective term for whatever loose aggregation of musicians he assembles around himself, the Lincolnshire wordsmith chooses not the easy route of providing us with a selection of cross-career 'faves', but sticks to those three albums and newly-written works, which it has to be said could have easily come from any of that triumvirate. In fact, the moody, defiant 'Letting The Mad Dogs Lie' is so pointedly good it could have come from any of his best works up as far as my personal favourite, 1974's Some Days You Eat The Bear.
Some of the recent tunes are reworkings, of course, but doen in such a fresh way that they sound brand new whilst simultaneously retaining the majesty of old. When other songwriters do this it normally indicates that they've run out of ideas, but not Iain Matthews: if anything, he's on a mission, as he has been for most of his career, to do it right while he still can. Producers and arrangements may have occasionally softened his edges but nothing, it seems, can blunt his razorsharp instinct, as the lyrics seem to portend. Talking of which, I now have a new favourite: "Was she thinking of you or of me, when she said 'the old man and the sea' ?" I have no idea what it means or who it refers to, but I shall probably spend the next few weeks pondering it.
Yet, even if every harmony sounds like a chorus of West Coast monks on their slow procession to some dimly-lit freethinking church atop Big Sur, it isn't just about the vocals, or the words - or even just about Iain himself. Co-writer/guitarist Richard Kennedy, guitarist/mandolinist Bart-Jan Baartmans and keyboardist Mike Roelofs are the sort of tasteful, free-improvising yet tight virtuosi that would be just at home in an ECM jazz trio, or a jam-band ensemble ala Little Feat or SCI, as they obviously seem in a folk-rock combo. Furthermore, it's their flourishes and flurries of piano, Rhodes and instruments of both 6 and 12 strings that elevate the band above the usual strictures of said genre (and indeed, the painfully polite way in which it's now played even by its pioneers). Close your eyes and find yourself transported to a variety of decades. Sometimes it's 1969 - at other times, the whole ensemble sound uncannily like the Cowboy Junkies or Union Station. But that's hardly surprising in itself considering how both those bands grew up on old Fairport and Southern Comfort records: if anything, it shows that the circle truly does remain unbroken.
Bassist Leon Bartels, while not present for the entire show for some reason, still makes an invaluable contribution upon his arrival, providing the missing piece of the rhythmic jigsaw formerly laid bare by the absence of a drummer: like many of his contemporaries, Matthews is often found playing without a full complement of musicians for budgetary reasons, but rather than let that hold him back, this is treated as yet another opportunity for interpretation and interpolation. If only everyone in such situations had such creative fervour. For this reason, the evergreen 'Woodstock', again reworked so that it bears scant relation to MSC's own vintage, let alone Joni's original or CSNY's rockier take, differs also from the version recorded by this lineup: it now has a propulsive, percussive base that leads the audience as much as the band to the swell-deserved climax. Providing, yet again, more evidence of Matthews' steadfast refusal to be bracketed, tagged with one song or made to stand still. As if to further underline this strategy, rather than end here, a short encore follows, but even if it hadn't, Matthews Southern Comfort had by now already made their point, and the long, cold, windy journey back to Zone Ridiculous felt a lot warmer than it had done on the way in. I'll see him the same time next year, and do you know what, I wager that even though his aged-in oak voice may remain constant, musically he'll sound almost completely different. Not that I'd want everyone to do that, but THAT's an artist for you.
DARIUS DREWE SHIMON