Words by Ed King / Pic by Katja Ogrin
I look down at the awkward teenage mess, two bodies embarrassed and intertwined at the top of the stairs. The boy looks up, the girl away. I turn to face the stage; the red, blue and purple lights creating a sea of satanic ready brek hair from the heads of the audience.
I feel like a cameo appearance in a John Hughes melodrama, and the words run again through my mind – ‘perhaps I shouldn’t be here tonight.’
But I’ve been looking forward to this gig, and no teen dream car crash is going to push me from my perch. ‘Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm’, Benjamin Francis Leftwich’s 2011 album, has been on almost permanent repeat since I first heard it; albeit an absurdly recent discovery. It’s a stunning debut, and I am genuinely excited about hearing him play live.
The Institute is busy too. A wall to wall crowd on a mid week school night (a phrase which applies more than intended); it seems I am a straggling interloper in so many ways this evening.
But what I lack in longevity I make up in obsession, and as Leftwich delivers ‘Pictures’ alone in a deep blue spotlight, I confidently sing along. And apart from an oddly overwhelming echo on his vocals, the live track is as beautiful as the recording.
The band ‘walk on’ for track two, introducing ‘1904’ with its signature organ chords; although the lack of violin leaves a small doughnut hole. The sound is a muffled too, with the inclusion of more instruments masking the man in the middle.
Silence. Then a brief enquiry, “Are you OK?”, attempts to segue into ‘Shine’ – where the lead electric picks out a beautiful riff, before… silence. Then ‘Manchester Snow’ and a pedal steel guitar summons the spirit of Ry Cooder.
Another awkward silence follows, and I check myself – ‘give the man a break, he’s not Dara O Briain’ before ‘Hole in my Hand’ is introduced.
“It’s the story of a soldier who was in love with a girl, and in a war, who shoots himself in the hand to come home.” Fair enough, I guess he’s not Tom Wolfe either.
The set continues with a balance of old, new, inaudible and acoustic – with the increasingly prominent band making many songs difficult to absorb. And aside from during a beautiful and brave off mike rendition of ‘Maps’, another track from Leftwich’s 2010 debut EP, the audience start to chatter like polite gatecrashers.
‘Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm’ gets a generous outing, alongside new tracks – bringing a cinematic change of pace and Explosion in the Sky comparisons.
And despite offering a shortlist of previous Brummie encounters, and a slightly coerced birthday wish to a slightly embarrassed Vicky Mills, Leftwich remains a detached air between him and the crowd. Which is unfortunate; as loud applause, genuine appreciation and a few wolf whistles make their way up from the crowd.
But above all, I blame the soundcheck for a disappointing evening. No matter how good your music, or potent your lyrics, if you’re drowned out by your own band there’s not a lot you can do.
The Institute is a venue very dear to my heart – both professionally and personally, and boasts healthy listings. But its downstairs Library (or Dance factory if you’re old enough) is not the right place for some artists, and as Leftwich reminds himself of “a free gig at The Yardbird” I kick myself for not finding this man sooner.
But journalistic protocol keeps me until the end of the encore, where by now the licentious youth behind me are lying on top of each other. I’m sober, alone, and underwhelmed by the evening. And as I sneak out before the final clap and cloakroom queue, I say again to myself, ‘perhaps I shouldn’t be here tonight.’
But I was, and I will again – with ‘Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm’ still firmly engaging and Leftwich’s new material sounding well worth a follow up.
I’ll just keep my fingers crossed next time for better levels on the mixing desk, and perhaps less ‘snogging’ behind me.
For more on Benjamin Francis Leftwich, visit http://www.benjaminfrancisleftwich.com/
For further gigs at The Institute, visit http://mamacolive.com/theinstitute/listings/
For more on Birmingham Promoters, including event listings, visit http://birminghampromoters.com/